Karen and Eric Johnson learned the hard way that their son, Owen, had a food allergy.
When Owen was 15 months old, the family pediatrician suggested the Town of Tonawanda couple add peanut butter to their son’s diet for protein, even though the toddler had a history of eczema – a red flag that allergies might be lurking.
Owen’s first taste, though small, was almost deadly.
“He blew up like a balloon,” his mother said. “His eyes swelled shut.” He had to be taken to the hospital.
“Thus began our life of food allergies,” Karen Johnson said.
The Johnsons are not alone. Such allergies affect up to 15 million Americans, including one in 13 children – roughly two in every classroom – according to the Food Allergy Research & Education, or FARE, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to ensure the safety and inclusion in society of those with food allergies, and to seek a cure.
A local effort to raise awareness about food allergies will take place next Saturday, when people with food allergies, their families, friends and the public are invited to participate in a FARE Walk for Food Allergy. It starts at 9 a.m. at Parkside Lodge in Delaware Park and runs until noon.
The walk starts after a 10 a.m. opening ceremony. Also part of the event this year will be a bounce house, Zoomobile, face painting, a fire truck, photo booth, manicures and pedicures, an obstacle course, karate and dance show, craft tables and Buster Bison.
Adults who sign up for the walk and raise $100 receive a T-shirt, as do all children who participate in the walk. Walkers can sign up online or in person at the park next Saturday. Participants can walk individually or as part of a team. For more info, to volunteer or to register, visit foodallergywalk.org/buffalo.
“We’re having a very large raffle. We’ve gotten lots and lots of donations, about 50 items,” said Johnson, who is among the volunteers helping with the event.
She and her husband plan to attend with Owen, now 5, and son, Charlie, who is almost 3.
Karen Johnson said living with a son who has peanut and tree nut allergies has been a family “game changer.”
“These kinds of food allergies aren’t to be mistaken with intolerances where you may have gastrointestinal upset,” she said. “These allergic reactions, anaphylaxis, cause your body to shut down, cause your airway to close. All we’re looking for from the community is that people be aware that this is serious. All we ask is for you to keep our children safe, as we would yours.”
Owen loves to play outside. He adores his toy cars, trucks and Hot Wheels. He likes to draw and color, read books and watch documentaries about animals. He’s fascinated about how things work. Maybe he’ll become a scientist or an engineer someday.
That will take vigilance from those around him, his mother said.
“I don’t ever want to see him look the way he looked when I took him to Children’s” Hospital when he was 15 months old, she said. “With my son, it can take something simple, like cross-contamination of something with nuts.”
The Johnsons were relieved that Owen’s preschool prohibited baked goods for birthday parties, and that his new school, where he will start kindergarten in the fall, has the same guidelines, which address obesity and food allergies.
Karen Johnson won’t buy any baked goods. She makes them herself. And that’s just the starting point of grocery shopping.
“I have to read the label on every single thing I buy, even if I buy it every week,” she said. “They can change their manufacturing at any time.”
A pack that contains two EpiPens and Benadryl goes with Owen, wherever he goes.
“We still have fun, we still go places,” Karen Johnson said, “but we do it with his allergies in mind.”