guest post by Alana Sheldahl

Whether it is due to increased awareness, diagnosis or a change in our food supply, food allergies and the need for food restriction are much more common now than they were in generations past. As such, it is an issue that will very likely affect one or more people in your parish. As a food allergic person myself, I would like to share some tips which will help your parish become food allergy aware, and help you to love those in your midst who might need special foods.

This is especially important in Orthodox parishes that have a tradition of coffee hour, trapeza, common meal or pot luck dinners after Divine Liturgy. How food is presented, who is responsible for bringing food, and how it is labeled can all make a difference in whether a family with food allergies is welcomed or rejected in the life of the Church.

Life-Threatening Food Allergies

First of all, it is important to find out if there is a child or adult in your community with life-threatening food allergies. A life-threatening allergy, for instance to peanuts or nuts, can cause an anaphylactic reaction if the person simply breathes peanut dust, or touches a tabletop where a little one smeared peanut butter. If someone in your parish has life-threatening allergies, it necessary for all members of the parish to refrain from bringing that allergen into the parish hall, out of love for the “least of these.”

Not everyone has an allergy this severe, but for those who do, this type of care is vital to their ability to participate in parish life. It is a small yet loving sacrifice to make. Eat your peanut butter at home, if necessary. Additionally, such a severe allergy might make it necessary for parents of non allergic children to make extra sure their kids’ hands are clean before playing in the nursery, so as not to contaminate the common toys. The burden for life-threatening allergies must fall onto the whole community, and not just on the shoulders of the frightened and beleaguered parents.

Less Severe Allergies

But not all allergies are that severe. This article is going to focus on things a parish can do to help make coffee hour more accessible to everyone including those with food allergies that are not airborne or skin-contact severe, but which need clear labels, cross contamination avoidance protocols, and good will.

  • If there are teams of people who take turns bringing food for coffee hour, have one person or family in each team committed to bringing allergen friendly fare. If it’s bagels one week…that person would bring gluten free bagels, for instance.
  • Think about serving food separately. Instead of serving chocolate dipped strawberries, serve the strawberries with the chocolate for dipping on the side. That way both the person allergic to strawberries and the person allergic to chocolate can partake of part of the treat. Do not put wheat crackers side by side on the same platter as the veggies or cheese slices. Use a separate container and a separate utensil for each type of food.
  • Label your foods. Ask parishioners to tape a simple ingredients list to their crock pots so that people with food issues can be aware of what is being served.
  • At larger catered meals, at least make a gluten free option available. If you are serving pasta…also serve rice or potatoes. Choose a menu that does not contain the major allergens. Be willing to accommodate special needs (I am speaking here of catered pay-per-plate type dinners).
  • Keep serving utensils separate. Do not use the same knife to cut a regular cake and then the gluten free cake. Basic food safety and cross contamination avoidance can be learned by parish kitchen volunteers. The parents of a food allergic child, or the food allergic adult will be happy to teach you. Actually follow the suggestions once you have been educated. It matters.
  • If you are hosting a bridal shower and providing all the food, do not call up your food allergic friend and ask her to bring a safe dish to share unless it is already a pot luck. Make the effort to make or acquire some safe dishes to accommodate your friends with food allergies, instead. This is what sacrificial love looks like.
  • When planning youth group functions, if there are children with food intolerances or allergies, don’t always serve the very foods those youths are allergic to. Pizza night sounds wonderful…except for the child who is gluten and dairy intolerant. To that child, pizza night is an invitation to NOT participate in youth group. If the parish is funding pizza for the youth, it needs to fund the gluten free pizza for the gluten free youth as well.
  • Do not always expect the allergic person to “bring their own”. Often they will, but hospitality and love can go higher than that. The best day one of my kids had was one time when she was invited to a birthday party and the hostess lovingly made sure there were all kinds of gluten free treats available to her that were just as nice as the other treats the other girls were enjoying, and presented just as beautifully. It was a very loving thing this hostess did, and that day stood out to us as one to remember.

Building Empathy

Do not tolerate teasing or bullying about food allergies (or anything, for that matter). The food allergic child already feels left out and singled out. It is already hard enough to be a part of a community yet never sharing food, as it is. Bullying makes it worse and might drive a person out of Church altogether. Sharing food is a powerful human bonding experience.

Take some time to imagine what it would be like to never eat the blessed bread after receiving Eucharist. Imagine no Koliva. Imagine no Litya bread. Imagine never having Paska bread or cheese. Imagine never being able to partake of the Vasilopita with the hidden coin. Imagine there being no donuts for you on Theophany. This is the experience of at least some of your brothers and sisters in the Church.

So many Orthodox traditions revolve around food: Feasting and fasting, breaking bread together, sharing a meal. God’s table is a place for everyone. We do not want to turn our backs on our brothers and sisters with food allergies or restrictions with an unkind “Bring your own.”

About the Author

Alana Sheldahl
Alana Sheldahl is an Orthodox Christian blogger and humorist, is herself allergic to many foods and is the mom to a family of young adults who have to eat gluten free. She has opinions.

She can be found at www.morningcoffee.blogspot.com. Her humor can be seen on Facebook. Look for Potentiana the Pious of Great Potential.

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