I eat whatever I want. In fact, I can eat whatever I DON’T want to eat too. When people invite me out and ask where I want to eat, I honestly don’t care. I can easily find things on the menu that will fill my belly. Generally, I believe that people are way too picky, and should relax a bit and enjoy the bounty of food choices.

Until a few months ago I believed that food allergies and intolerances were a “state of mind” and just the physical manifestation of an overactive imagination surrounding food preference and fads. I believed that people put SO much energy into convincing themselves that they didn’t like a particular type of food that they made it real. Something like the times when I pretended to be sick so I didn’t have to take a test at school…and then got sick. The solution to me was simple; if a person has a food allergy or intolerance, all they had to do was think about it differently and they could be cured.

I remember one morning when my wife and I were trying to get our kids ready for school. We hadn’t gone food shopping and the only thing we had to make for their lunch was peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and some saltine crackers. My eyes pretty much rolled into the back of my head as my daughters calmly explained that they both had kids in their class that had peanut allergies. I remember saying something like, “So, don’t let them eat your sandwiches!”

…Don’t even get me started on Gluten. Bread is good! Flour, yeast, and water…seriously?!

I spent a lot of years working in restaurants. It is a thankless job with endless abuse from the general public. During a busy shift, all it takes is one small problem to throw off your entire night. On one of my shifts, a very stern customer told me that her child had a peanut allergy. She quickly followed up with an equally stern, “I’m serious. I have a pen in my purse and I will stick it in my child to save his life if you don’t take this seriously.” That actually scared me to death! Outside of that experience, which preyed upon my will to survive, everyone else with a food allergy was just annoying.

When a customer would tell me that they were allergic to something, our process at the time was to get one of the dining room managers. That manager would come to the table and then have the conversation again with the customer. Then the manager would walk to the kitchen and speak with the kitchen manager and tell them the situation. At this point, one or both of them would walk back out to the customer and decide what they could/would order. Such a pain…not only for the customer, but for us! In the meantime, I’m falling behind on my other tables and the kitchen is falling behind because the kitchen manager isn’t in the window. All because this one person has an allergy. Now, I’ve seen people pretend they were “allergic” to dairy simply because they don’t like milk, then they order cheese on their burger. Clearly, they’re faking which only reinforced my belief that food allergies were made up.

Now let’s fast forward. A few months ago, I accepted a position at CertiStar, Inc. The Founder/President, Shandee Chernow, created this company because she got tired of playing Russian Roulette with her life every time she went into a restaurant. This is how I was introduced to food allergies and when I began to shift my understanding of food allergies and intolerances.

I now know that someone goes to the Emergency Room every 3 minutes because they ate something to which they are allergic (source: www.foodallergy.org). That’s 200,000 people a year. I’ve also learned that 15 million people have food allergies in our country and the number is growing every day.

Once I began telling people about CertiStar, I started hearing more and more stories from friends & family about their allergies & intolerances. How did I not know about them? What I’ve learned is that people who have food allergies and intolerances usually don’t like to talk about it. They’ve seen the servers at restaurants subtly roll their eyes because they know that this will be a “high maintenance table”. They’ve also seen their friends start awkward conversations once they begin their conversation with the server, then the manager and then the manager again.

It is a basic human response to empathize with a person in need. Like all things, empathy must be preceded by understanding. Like me, restaurant organizations need to understand that there is a serious problem around food allergies and too many react to these problems AFTER something serious happens.

At this point, everyone knows someone who has a food allergy or intolerance. This year, we’ve all heard of the tragedies around children who have died from their food allergies (Amanda Huynh, Elijah Silvera and James Turnbull). Thinking back, I can’t believe I rolled my eyes because of my children’s classmates allergies to peanuts. All I see now are parents praying that their children will keep breathing when at school and completely out of their control. If I’ve learned anything over the past few months it is that now is the time to take a proactive action to prevent allergic reactions in restaurants. There is too much data out there to ignore.

Roughly 30% of the 15 million people with food allergies simply don’t go out to eat. First and foremost they fear for their safety. Second, they hate being the center of attention and don’t want to suffer through the pain of having to have “the conversation” with the restaurant folks. Third, they want to be able to believe that they have a choice over a bounty of foods that won’t kill them.

If 30% of 15 million Americans represent 4.5 million people, that is far too many people living in fear of dining out and enjoying their life. Now, if I am going out to a restaurant with someone who has a food allergy, I can assure you that THEY will choose where we eat. It only takes one more leap in assumption to imagine that these 15 million Americans have much more control over the restaurant industry than the restaurant industry gives them credit.

The reason that I’m writing this is simply because I believe that if I can change my perspective on food allergies and intolerances, other people can too. No one should have to feel bad after they go out to a restaurant and they absolutely shouldn’t have to go to the Emergency Room!