It was only two months after Daniel Clowes started half-day kindergarten at a Pennsylvania public school, and already some parents of his classmates were grumbling about his family. Daniel, 6, has life-threatening allergies to several foods, including milk, eggs, sesame, tree nuts, and peanuts, so the school—at the urging of Daniel's allergist—declared the class nut-free and issued a safe-snack list. After the Halloween party, when Daniel's father, John, personally inspected the goody bags prepared by parents to make sure no unapproved foods had made their way in, school officials told Gina Clowes, Daniel's mom, that a few parents had complained. "Why is it," they reportedly asked, "that one set of parents gets to dictate what the rest of the class does?"
"A lot of people just don't get it. They think you're a freaky mom who has food issues," says Jaleh Teymourian-Brahms, a Millburn, NJ, mom whose 2-year-old son, Miles, is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, and eggs. She recently got into an argument with the manager of her health club after dropping Miles off in the "nut-free" childcare room and discovering that another child was eating peanut M&M's--which the manager had given him. "I told the manager, 'That M&M could kill my kid.' He just rolled his eyes," says Teymourian-Brahms, who promptly quit the club.
Across the country, such clashes are occurring with striking regularity and rancor in schools, at daycare centers, and even within families as the number of children believed to have potentially deadly food allergies is exploding. "I've heard patients say, 'We can't go to our aunt's house because she doesn't understand,'" says Connie Weil, Ph.D., a psychologist at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, who often treats allergic children and their parents. "It's a chronic illness, but it's a hidden illness, so it's misperceived by society."