South Dakota family navigates around child’s food allergies

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

ABERDEEN, S.D. (AP) — There are many things that make parents scared for their children — climbing the top of the jungle gym, getting too close to a hot stove, other kids being mean — but for some families, something as simple as a snack can cause the fear.

That’s the case for Elissa Dickey. Her youngest son, Ernie, is allergic to peanuts and dairy, meaning no peanut butter and jelly sandwiches washed down with a big glass of milk for this 7-year-old.

“Cooking from scratch became the norm for us,” Dickey said to the Aberdeen American News. “Looking back now, we’re used to it, it’s not like it’s easy, but we’re used to it. Right away, it was really overwhelming.”

Ernie was about 2 months old when Dickey said she realized he was having some issues, which is when his suspected dairy allergy was confirmed. It took a lot of searching to find a formula that he could digest without problems.

He also had eczema as a baby and toddler, which caused some food allergy issues, Dickey said. Once his skin issues were taken care of, Ernie still had a peanut and dairy allergy.

Ernie always has his EpiPen with him — it’s in a tiny backpack, Dickey said. He can’t come in contact with peanuts, let alone ingest them, and his dairy allergy goes beyond common lactose intolerance.

While she’s well versed in it now, grocery shopping is still a little bit harder for Dickey. Ingredients have to be free of any trace of dairy or peanuts, not just devoid of them. She knows which brands meet their requirements, but also has to be constantly vigilant.

“Don’t be afraid to contact companies,” Dickey said. “It’s hard to know how much is regulated and whether no information means it’s fine or it means they didn’t even think to talk about it.”

Dickey and her husband Ted make sure Ernie gets included — on pizza night that means Ernie and Elissa get their own dairy-free pie to share while Dad and older brother Jack get Domino’s or Pizza Hut, Elissa Dickey said. When they found out Wednesdays were chocolate milk day at school, Ernie got to take chocolate soy milk in his lunch box.

Because of Ernie’s allergies, Dickey said she knows her grocery bill is much higher than it is for the average family of four.

“We’re lucky that we can afford some of that stuff,” she said. “I forgot how cheap regular chocolate chips are.”

The brand she buys is around $6 for a 10-ounce bag, while regular chocolate chips are around $3 for a 12-ounce bag, Dickey said.

When they eat out, it’s usually at chain restaurants, Dickey said. It’s easier to verify the allergy protocols.

As Ernie’s gotten older, Dickey said the family has worked to make sure he advocates for himself. He knows not to eat any food that wasn’t either prepared or approved by Mom or Dad.

“I want to show that it’s OK to ask. This is what you need,” she said.

When the Dickeys travel, a big cooler full of “Ernie food” goes with, and if they’re out at a coffee shop for an after- school treat, Ernie usually takes his own snack.

Dickey said the science around allergies has improved even in her youngest son’s seven years. He might grow out of his allergies, or could possibly go through desensitization therapy. That’s where the patient starts out with a minuscule dose of the allergen in a clinic, slowly building up tolerance for a substance that might have once killed him or her.

“If you accidentally eat something, you would still go to the doctor, but it’s taking away that immediate danger of anaphylaxis,” Dickey said.