But please, no peanuts, cracker jacks

Tuesday, May 21, 2002

NEW BRITAIN, Conn. -- A year ago, Nicholas Jones' peanut allergy forced his family to leave a New Britain Rock Cats game minutes after arriving. Earlier this month, the 6-year-old fan returned to the stadium to throw out the first pitch.

Through a special arrangement with the Eastern League team and a local support group for people with severe food allergies, a "food-free" section was established at New Britain stadium.

Similar sections have been set up by other teams around the country, including the Texas Rangers.

In New Britain, the section was cleaned before the game and extra ushers were posted to keep people with food out of the area.

For many of the kids, it was the first time they had been to a professional sports event. Normal childhood activities -- ballgames, going to the movies or the zoo, even some birthday parties -- are usually off-limits for such children, because of the risk they could eat, touch or simply be near food that could cause a fatal reaction.

Forbidden food

"There's not a lot of options for us," said Laura Austin, whose 2-year-old son, Skyler, is so allergic to peanuts, milk and other foods that she has locks on her refrigerator.

Austin, who brought Skyler and 6-year-old Dakota to see the Rock Cats, said the game was an amazing experience.

"It was so much fun," she said. "We never get to do anything like that."

More than 7 million people are estimated to be allergic to some type of food, including 1.5 million allergic to peanuts. Even traces of the nut can cause highly allergic people to immediately go into anaphylactic shock that can be fatal.

Sufferers must always carry syringes of epinephrine that can stop the reaction for about 20 minutes as they rush to the emergency room.

"When you're living with a child with a food allergy, you never have the luxury of letting down your guard," said Anne Munoz-Furlong, head of the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, an advocacy and awareness group with more than 24,000 members.

At the same time, parents are struggling to balance caution with providing their children as normal a life as possible, Munoz-Furlong said. That's why the group is helping parents such as Laura Austin and Sandy Jones, Nicholas' mother, to set up activities their kids can safely attend.

In Texas, a family with an allergic child was able to go to a Rangers game last year because the team sectioned off a few food-free rows. In North Carolina, a local allergy support group is planning a food-free game in June with the Hickory Crawdads.

Finding a way

The Connecticut game came together after Jones approached the Rock Cats and explained her family's situation. Her son loves baseball but on the way out of the ballpark last year, he told her, "That's OK, mom; I don't have to go to a baseball game."

He should be able to go, his mother said. Rock Cats manager John Willi agreed, and together the team and the parents set up the food-free section for the game this month.

The team put extra security in place and made sure the families had a separate entrance away from the concession stands. Vendors didn't sell food near the section, and cleaning crews paid special attention to the area. Before the game, Jones and her father were permitted to come in with buckets and dishwasher soap (which dissolves the proteins in peanuts that cause the allergic reactions) to wash down the seats and the railings.

Nicholas and his family got the full game experience. He and his 7-year-old brother, Christopher, who both play on a team, donned a giant foam paw with claws and a big foam 1 finger to cheer the Rock Cats, who routed the New Haven Ravens 12-5.

Christopher got his baseball signed, and Nicholas threw out the game's first pitch. The Rock Cats sold out the section and earned some loyal fans in the process. Willi said the team is trying to arrange more games this season with food-free sections.

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