Fighting Allergies in Woodbury

A local clinic and school district share how food allergies should be fought.

In the checkout line at Sam’s Club, 2-year-old Aubriana Benjamin was mid-temper tantrum when mother Laura tried to appease her with nuts offered as an in-store sample. What happened in the next few seconds altered the last four years and remains a serious concern today. Little Aubrianna began coughing and struggling to breathe. Her face swelled, and she vomited. Laura raced her to urgent care, where medication only temporarily abated her pain, and then headed to the hospital, where she was held for two nights. “It was bad,” says Laura, a nurse at Central Pediatrics in Woodbury. “I was super scared.” It was later discovered Aubrianna has an anaphylaxis, or severe (and potentially repeat) reaction, to her then-undiagnosed food allergy to cashews. Aubrianna is among an estimated 15 million Americans with food allergies, according to the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) Association. A 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the number of people with food allergies is on the rise, with an 18 percent increase between 1997 and 2007. “In general, it seems like there is an increased prevalence,” says Dr. Christie Rhodes Dekko, a general pediatrician at Central Pediatrics for 14 years. As a now-healthy but cautious kindergartener, Aubrianna is an estimated one in 13 children under age 18 with this potentially deadly disease. FARE cites an extensiveness which is about two children in each U.S. classroom. Rhodes Dekko says the increases have been seen in both anaphylaxis and oral allergy syndrome, which is a less severe reaction. She says the two shouldn’t be lumped into the same category. “There are definitely some myths out there,” Rhodes Dekko says. “There is wheat intolerance or there is a feeling that I just feel better if I don’t eat it.” Aubrianna’s reaction was not the first food allergy experience for Laura Benjamin. Her elder daughter, Alexis, was allergic to eggs, melons and onions as a young child. Benjamin says Alexis had more uncertainty about allergies, while Aubrianna’s are more understood with the advent of blood testing. After the doctor, parents and patient walk through possible allergies after a reaction, blood is drawn and allergens such as eggs, milk, peanut butter and fish are administered. “Children like that better,” Rhodes Dekko says. “Children don’t love it, but it’s one poke. We can figure out what they are allergic to based on what the response is in the blood test.” Older children can also outgrow the allergies, with less than 25 percent doing so, Rhodes Dekko says. Alexis Benjamin was one of them. If this is thought, oral tests to reintroduce the once-allergen are conducted in a hospital setting. “I’ve had some patients that have outgrown their peanut allergy and are now super excited,” Rhodes Dekko says. South Washington County Schools prides itself on making its meal offerings edible for all students, says Kathryn Grafsgaard, the district’s director of nutrition services. In cases of students with severe food allergies, the district will work with parents and physicians to complete a federal form outlining the specific foods that must be omitted and what foods can be substituted. Grafsgaard says, “We work with all types of diets, and some that are very complex.” Last school year, the school district “drastically improved” its gluten-free menus. Before it avoided bread, but now it’s working with a Twin Cities bakery to provide gluten-free products. The district is also working on matching food-allergy meals to traditional meals. “If the elementary school children are having chicken nuggets and corn bread or something else, we will provide an accompanying menu for the children that need special menus,” Grafsgaard says, “so they don’t feel out of place or feel like they are being treated differently (and) most kids like to feel like they are blending in.” For Laura Benjamin, there is no gray area. She has communicated with Aubrianna’s teacher that her daughter will bring her own snack and often her own lunch. Grafsgaard is ready for other parents to inquire about menu concerns. “I will get an email from a nurse, and we will immediately respond,” Grafsgaard says. “We have all kinds of information on our website for our key foods and the allergens so parents can go there.” If, somehow, an allergic student ingests a food they shouldn’t, an “allergy action plan” must be in place. The teachers and/or parents must be aware of the symptoms and how to treat mild reactions (antihistamine) and severe (epi pen). “My big thing for parents and day care providers is if they are in doubt, and you are worried that they are having an allergic reaction, just give the epi pen, give them the shot in the leg,” Rhodes Gekko says. “It’s pretty easy to give. Besides a little pain in their leg, other than that they tolerate the epinephrine very well. It will save their life.”           When Aubrianna goes to parties, Laura Benjamin will ask parents about the menu. Too often their responses are that they aren’t sure what they are having or what’s in it, Benjamin says. “Every day as a mother and a nurse, it makes you somewhat uncertain as she leaves the door each morning,” Benjamin says. “You are hoping for everything to work out and everyone is prepared, knowing the warning signs and keeping it black and white in interpreting what they can and can’t do.”Here are a few of Woodbury’s food allergy friendly retailers and restaurants: Grocery Stores-Kowalski’s Market// Head to Aisle 4, which contains many of the grocery store’s gluten-free (GF) products. 8505 Valley Creek Road; 651.578.8800; -Tailor Made Nutrition // One stop shop for local and national gluten-free brand items. 8160 Coller Way; 651.702.2522; -Trader Joe’s // Provides an online listing of all special dietary items sold in stores. 8960 Hudson Road; 651.735.0269; Sweet Treats-Dairy Queen // The original arctic rush beverage and lemonade chillers are completely dairy-free, and a gluten-sensitive guide is available online under the nutrition tab at the bottom of the page. 7450 Currell Blvd.; 651.731.6878; -Dorothy Ann Bakery & Café // GF options include: monster cookies, chocolate chews and cupcakes. Chocolate and yellow GF cake is also available upon request. 710 Commerce Drive; 651.731.3323; -Jamba Juice // All four of Jamba’s Kids Meal smoothies are GF and dairy-free. Choices include strawberries gone bananas, blueberry strawberry blast-off, berry beet it! and poppin’ peach mango. 8362 Tamarack Village; 651.731.9412; Restaurants-Bonfire // Almost half of the menu offers GF preparation upon request, and food options are labeled for ease of ordering. 1424 Weir Drive; 651.735.0085; -Cravings // Has an exclusively GF menu, which includes sandwiches, burgers, pasta, soups, salads and desserts. Our favorite kid-friendly option is the French dip on a grilled gluten-free hoagie roll. 755 Bielenberg Drive; 651.528.6828; -Joey’s Pizza // With eight GF pizzas to choose from, there’s something for the whole family at Joey’s Pizza. 1850 Weir Drive; 651.735.6700; Bread // Ordered without croutons or crispy noodles, many of Panera’s salads, dressings, and the low-fat vegetarian black bean and creamy tomato soup are GF. 1775 Radio Drive; 651.264.0010;