HARLINGEN — In some cases, many might not know about or follow these necessary precautions because they or their loved ones aren’t affected.
But for others, these extra measures help those that are affected avoid unbearable symptoms and even life or death situations.
When arriving to locations where people eat such as restaurants and movie theaters, Kayla McFarland, 30, often wipes down surfaces her 8-year-old son, Henry, might come in contact with.
She admits it’s difficult to get all areas, especially in playgrounds.
However, thanks to Kayla and another Harlingen mom, Judith Moreno, the city took action to counter food contamination in playgrounds and help spread more awareness about food allergies.
Starting in mid-December, the Harlingen Parks and Recreation Department began installing food allergy warning signs in all of the city’s 18 park playgrounds.
“It makes us feel great to start something like this and kind of be the trend,” Parks and Recreation Director Javier Mendez said. “We’re kind of the first ones to build an all-inclusive playground and so of course, it’s growing from there.”
As of Tuesday, signs have been placed in four Parks — Lon C. Hill, Victor, Pendleton and C.B. Wood.
In an effort to provide a safe environment for all park users, city officials said they highly encourage people to keep food in picnic designated areas to prevent food contamination in the playgrounds.
According to Mendez, the project cost $375 to make all 18 signs, which read in English and Spanish.
Each sign advises playground visitors to voluntarily follow four steps, such as washing hands or using a wet wipe after eating.
The signs also warn about sharing food with children, especially without their caregiver’s permission.
Mendez said the department should have all of the signs up in city playgrounds by the end of January.
While visiting local parks with her son, Judith said they would find food candy wrappers and even candies with peanuts on playground equipment.
Given that even a tiny amount of food proteins can cause life-threatening reactions in children with allergies, Judith said exiting the park was a better option to keep her son safe.
“As a parent of a child with food allergies, I am always looking for ideas to spread awareness in the community,” she said. “I found articles from other proactive parents who worked with their community leaders to put the food allergy awareness signs, and that’s what inspired me to reach out to the city.”
The first week of October, Judith said she sent a message to Mendez requesting the signs.
Also in October, Kayla said she presented the idea to implement the signs during a city council meeting.
“We travel through different states during the summer, and we saw a couple of playgrounds in Ohio and Indiana that had food allergy awareness signs,” Kayla said. “My son noticed this and so we agreed that we would try to have them in Harlingen.”
Judith said her 10-year-old son, Jaythan, is thrilled about the signs.
“Community inclusion is essential for our little food allergy warriors,” she said. “I’m grateful for the city of Harlingen for helping our food allergic community children feel safer, supported and valued as part of our community.”
Judith said she hopes the signs will create a ripple effect in neighboring cities and help food allergy awareness be brought to the forefront of communities.
More plans ahead
Helping implement the food allergy warning signs is just the beginning for Kayla and Henry.
Kayla said their next step is to try to work with restaurants and the city to see what they can do to make restaurants more aware of customers with food allergies.
“When we go eat, sometimes we walk out because Henry says he didn’t feel comfortable there because they didn’t know what was in their food,” Kayla said. “So then we get some restaurants that have a food allergy menu and we can accommodate.”
Henry spoke at the last city council meeting to see what could be done to encourage local restaurants to be more aware of their menus.
Additionally, Kayla and Henry are interested in coordinating Harlingen’s first food allergy walk or run.
“We used to attend some in Austin, but they stopped them and so we’re kind of left with nothing,” Kayla said. “Henry said we should have our own, which would be great.”
Kayla said the event would involve a lot of coordinating.
She’s not sure yet where to start with it, but it’s definitely on their to-do list for 2020.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
• Food allergy awareness signs will be placed at all 18 City of Harlingen Parks.
• One in 13 U.S. children is affected by a food allergy, which is equivalent to two percent per classroom.
• Teal is the color used to spread food allergy awareness.
• Visit www.foodallergyawareness.org for more information on food allergies.