By Gerardo Marcano - February 10th, 2021
Gerardo: Hi Chris, On behalf of the Elijah-Alavi Foundation, thank you for extending your time to talk with us. My name is Jerry(Gerardo), and I will be conducting your interview.
Chris: Nice to meet you
Gerardo: I have been given the pleasure of hearing many essential details about you and your family. Can you tell us a little bit more about your beautiful family?
Chris: We are a family of five. My wonderful husband Adrian, I'm going to say that he is my better half. I have three kids, a twenty-one-year-old son, Troy. He was the first one to start me on the food allergy journey. I also have my twins, Maddox and Sanaa'. When Troy was young, I was a young mom. Food allergies (awareness) wasn't as prevalent as now, so it was a lot of jumping through hoops with doctors. I was a research mom, bringing in papers from the library to the doctors and diagnosing myself, saying, I think this is what he has. They would tell me that you don't know what you are talking about, you are just a worried mom, and we found, at the time, really great doctors at Mt. Sinai, Dr. Shear. Dr. Shear was like, you are right on. Your son has a dairy allergy, and a soy allergy, and a nut allergy.
When my son Troy was about twelve or thirteen years old, we took him to get tested, and he was no longer allergic to dairy, eggs, or soy anymore. He came home to tell me that he ate cornbread, and I was like, hold on a second cornbread has eggs, and I almost had a heart attack. It was the first time that he had something with an allergen at a stranger's house. He just wanted to try out things.
Fast forward things, now my twins, Maddox and Sanaa', started with the same allergy symptoms as my son, so I knew that something was going. Maddox had blotchy skin. He had eczema on his head- And I knew the signs and thought, "Oh my goodness, another baby with food allergies.
Gerardo: Did you notice these symptoms around the same age as your oldest child (Troy)?
Chris: Maddox started showing signs earlier than Troy; he started showing signs around the first month, while Troy started showing signs around four months. He began on regular formula. I started noticing spit-ups, or vomiting, and or a lot of rashes. He was always like, flaming red. Not to be gross, but their poop was a little mucusy for kids with dairy allergies. So I noticed that with him and knew it from the start. By the time he got to about two years old, he was diagnosed with about twelve food allergies. And that's when my business came about. When I was employed making optical sales, it was July 26th. My job decided to fire me. My kid's birthday was the next day, and I had to find a birthday cake for my kids. The week prior, I tried to find a cake, and no one could accommodate those food allergies. I remember the baker saying to me, "Do you want me to make a cake out of air?". "How can I eliminate 12 food allergens ? You need eggs, and you need butter and gluten". So I decided to make my sister's banana bread recipe and eliminated the food allergens. I served it at their birthday party, and everyone loved it. No one knew the difference. That is when I realized that I was on to something. That is how my business, Mo' Pweeze Bakery, came about. That is actually what the kids said, when they had their first cupcake, they said, "Mo' pweeze."
Chris: Now Maddox has 35 to 36 food allergies. It has been a struggle, and a struggle is an understatement.
Gerardo: Are the 35 to 36 food allergies in the same food groups or related? How does that work?
Chris: So they are a little different. Some of them are bunched together with the nuts (allergy), and some others are a bit weird. He is allergic to black beans and corn and different things that you wouldn't think people would be allergic to. The sensitivities are getting better as we go along. He needed to get retested again. Those numbers seem to be coming down now.
Gerardo: Did you find any other related ailments that affect your children, such as asthma?
Chris: Oh yes, Maddox and Troy both had asthma. Maddox had severe eczema and was diagnosed with EOE ( Eosinophilic esophagitis) and his food allergy.
Gerardo: You told us a little bit about the story with the cornbread and going through that panic. I can imagine the fear as a parent that you could have possibly eaten something that has endangered your child. How would you say that this has affected your family dynamic?
Chris: It has affected us in so many ways. I have had to give Maddox three EpiPens. That has to be the scariest thing for me or any parent. The first time we realized that Maddox had an allergy to oat while trying out oat milk due to his dairy allergy. We had never had him tested for oats. His face became fire truck red, and I panicked. He started vomiting, He was about eight months old, and we had to call 911. It is very emotional to have a child, trying to protect them, and offer them something that could potentially kill them -And that is the worry of an allergy parent every single day. We have gotten Maddox tested for things on paper that they (doctors) say that he could have. We would purchase those food products, give them to him and see him covered in welts and stomach pain, and I immediately have to grab the EpiPen. There are so many different factors when you are an allergy parent. You are trying to make sure that you are keeping your children safe and trusting the doctors. Even though there is science behind it, each individual is different in how they deal with things, and their sensitivity level differs. It's a scary dynamic.
Gerardo: It sounds like you have to get to know every child's allergies and their specific sensitivities to each food. That is intense.
Chris: It is intense. Eating out is a challenge. Typically, we don't eat out, and when we eat out, we are taking with us his food, utensils, his cup, and covered straw. Typically businesses are pretty accommodating.
Gerardo: Sounds encouraging that you have gone out to eat, and businesses have been accommodating to you. Have you, along the way, as an allergy parent, found anything that has surprised you, encouraged you, or made you feel like you were on the right path? and
where did you find support?
Chris: My immediate family has been my biggest support system, and without them, I don't know where we would be. I had cried so often, especially when he was going through his worst eczema, covered head to toe. For example, my close friends, if we were going over for Christmas time, I would say you can't cook fish or have this or that in the house. And they would accommodate us. I have a special friend that we would go over for Christmas, and she would not put up her Christmas tree because of Maddox's allergy to the smell of pine. Without them, I don't know where I would be.
Gerardo: So I know that your family's story influenced your journey with your business. Can you tell us a little bit more about your inspiration for the bakery and some of the ingredients that you use?
Chris: My twins, my kids, seeing the joy that they had been able to have something that I produced. I figured if I could give my children this joy, why not spread that love to other families. I had this vision of what I wanted my bakery to be. I wanted my bakery to be where kids with all these restrictions could come in and know that anything in this safe place is something that they could have. That in itself is a reward. To have parents come in and say this is the first time that they have been able to come into a place and be able to choose or touch anything without thinking that it could have gluten, or nuts, or other allergens. Knowing that I can provide treats, cakes, and safe baked goods is a blessing and a dream come true.
Gerardo: Do you remember a specific time or incident when you encountered a family dealing with allergies and how it affected them through the bakery?.
Chris: Before the pandemic. I'm a hugger. Parents would come into the bakery and see the smiles on their children's faces and start crying. I would go over and hug them, and then we would both start crying because we understand each other. It is a kinship that we have with these families. We have clients, whom we call our extended family, call us and say that this is the first time in twenty years that we have been able to have a cake, or it has been 30 years since I have been able to have a donut, or oh my gosh, this is gluten-free, allergen-free. You receive that feedback from families all the time, and it is beautiful. I have families that have started with the business seven years ago, and they are still with us. We know their names. We know their tastes. We know their allergens, and we know their birthdays. It has been absolutely rewarding.
Gerardo: It sounds like you have formed a bond and gotten to know these families on such a personal level. So, restate, you offer vegan, kosher, and allergy friendly options? How are you able to ensure no cross-contamination?
Chris: Good question. For all of my suppliers, I use spreadsheets to keep track of reputable, organic suppliers. No ingredients come into the bakery that is not top ten allergens free, and all are kosher. I do have clients that will sometimes ask to send me, for example, and flour blend that they use.- And I have to answer them, no. I will not take that chance with any of my clientele. I would not take that chance with my child, so I will most definitely not take that chance with your child either or your family member. That is a strict rule in my kitchen.
The same way that I am super careful with my family is that I am with my clientele, who are an extension of my family. My ingredients have to be clean.
Gerardo: With your experiences with the care of your children, managing all the food allergies, etc. Did you trust leaving (your child/children) in the care of daycare and early child care schools when they were younger?
Chris: Maddox had food allergies, eczema, and asthma; he also had airborne reactions. So for me, (outside) childcare did not happen until kindergarten. I was fortunate enough to be able to be home with my twins. I don't know if I would have been comfortable leaving Madox in a child care setting due to everything that was going on with him at the time. When we started kindergarten, I started having meetings with the teachers, principal, and counselors in March. When he began in September, a 504 would be already in place. Thankfully, they were so helpful in the school district that I am in. They changed their cleaners for him. They changed the way they had snacks for him. He was eating in the principal's office. They did a lot to keep him safe, including two aides and a walkie talkie. As a parent, it helped me have more confidence in them as a school, and they cared enough to make sure he was safe.
Gerardo: Amazing. Those centers that need to improve regarding Food Allergy and Asthma are some of your suggestions for those specific schools?.
Chris: Knowledge is power. A lot of people do not take allergies seriously enough. FARE provides training that I feel every school should participate in. It should be mandatory for teachers or anyone in a school setting to take. For example, Elijah's Law needs not only to be in New York state but in every state. Our kids need that protection. I think back to my own experiences with parents and schools, where they thought I was being hypervigilant and making it up. Those people who do not have kids with food allergies make it your business to know about it. It can save someone's life.
Gerardo: Thank you for sharing about your family and your story. You touched a little about the pandemic; how has covid19 affected you, your family, and your everyday life?
Chris: Covid19 has been challenging for everyone, and particularly for parents with children with food allergies and asthma. I have been so super careful with the twins. During the height, they weren't even allowed to go outside. I have been extra diligent about foods and ingredients. I didn't want to take a chance of a reaction and having to go to the hospital during the pandemic in case of an emergency, at a time when the hospitals are not able to accommodate. There was a time when my children were not feeling well and in need to see a dermatologist or pulmonary specialist. Thankfully telehealth provided a way for my kids to attend appointments. We all worked together to make sure all medications were available and extra medicine were on hand.
Gerardo: You mention being prepared, emergency medicine on hand, telehealth appointments, and having a good team that you can trust as ways to ensure food allergy safety. How has that been with working?
Chris: The doctors communicated with us through email about having medicine and food sources available. The level of care is astounding.
Gerardo: In summary, are you aware of new updates with the FDA & CDC guidelines? And how do you keep up with these updates?
Chris: Fare is an excellent resource for updated guideline information, Snack Safely, and The Elijah Alavi Foundation. With the CDC guidelines and kids eating in classrooms is scary for me as a parent of children with food allergies. My kids are entirely virtual right now to avoid coming into contact with allergens. I don't know how they are managing those parents who cannot have that entirely virtual option.
Gerardo: Thank you. Are there other projects you're working on and goals you hope to achieve in the future? And are there any parting words of wisdom?
Chris: We are bringing our products to more stores, such as Trader Joe's, making our products more accessible. And in parting, to stay vigilant. We have to be our kids' biggest advocates. As an allergy parent, we have to be more alert, which means reading labels and keeping with the news, updates, and regulations. We have to continue to keep our kids safe and, in doing so, make sure to keep ourselves sane in the process.
Gerardo: It was a pleasure speaking with you today. Thank you for your advocacy and all the amazing work you are doing for our community.
Check out, Mo’Pweeze Bakery
32 Broadway, Denville, NJ 07834