A nearby church shared their new food allergy policy in an online forum. It was accompanied by the statement, “good warning to share with your church.” As a mother of a child with severe food allergies, pastor, and educator, I took note. I was glad to see a church moving towards food allergy awareness – taking this growing phenomenon seriously. According to the Food Allergy Research and Education organization, 32 million Americans live with food allergies. Within that statistic, 5.6 million are children. Further, such allergies are becoming more common and increasingly severe, especially in children. Food allergies in children are a concern for any human organization; the church is no exception. Jesus tells us that when we welcome children, we welcome him (Matthew 18:5).

Dismayingly, the new policy was simply a statement that 1) the church is a place where common allergens are served frequently, 2) the church cannot be held responsible for any incident, and 3) people attending the church accept their own risk by walking through the door. This statement is probably good for limiting the legal liability of a church, but it doesn’t do much to extend a sense of care or welcome to people who spend a good deal of their time worried. Does “attend at your own risk” welcome the child carrying an emergency epinephrine auto-injector (medicine for severe reactions), or does it remind them that this space that should be sanctuary is another area of potential danger? Does “we can’t be held responsible” assure the visiting parent with a severely allergic three-year-old that they can participate in worship with this community or send them to Sunday School? In our common interest of limiting the liability implications for the church, it’s important that we’re not causing the little ones to stumble (see Matthew 18:6). In short, we can work to reduce the barriers to full participation in the gathered community of Christ, rather than putting up new ones.

Churches do need to prayerfully consider food allergy policies, especially when eating is a common part of our communal life together. Within prayerful consideration, I encourage churches to consider how they might practice an aware invitation that recognizes that 1 in 13 children who crosses our thresholds has a food allergy. Further, about 15% of children with food allergies have had to use their emergency epinephrine auto-injector within the context of a school – they have had a terrifying, life-threatening experience within the walls of an institution they trust. If we want them to feel secure and to trust in the institution of the church, we owe them more than a “attend at your own risk” sign.

Noting that children frequently cannot advocate for themselves as an adult can, I want to offer ways that we, as the welcoming community of Christ, can authentically support families with food allergic children within our walls:

  • Training Sunday School and Youth Ministry professionals and volunteers on the proper use of an emergency epinephrine autoinjector (commonly called an epi-pen),
  • Creating and using protocols for reacting to an allergic emergency, and
  • Holding Food Allergy Awareness/Education events for worshippers.

Other useful practices to consider regarding food service in the context of the church include:

  • Offering children food ONLY after consulting with their parent or guardian (Always ask),
  • Providing foods in unopened packages that indicates clearly they are free from allergens as alternatives to those typically brought in for coffee hours (supplemental items, not replacements of favorites), and
  • Clearly labeling food items so parents and children can make an informed decision.

Finally, please know that parents of food allergic children are not asking everyone in a church to change their cooking or eating practices. Nor are people asking church members to cook for them – food made in a kitchen that hasn’t been sufficiently cleared of an allergen by a person who isn’t used to mitigating risk isn’t safe to offer. If a child with inhalant allergy to peanuts (or other common allergen) worships in your community, it probably would probably be best for non-allergic congregants to enjoy those items at home rather than in church. After all, which is more important: welcoming a child in the family of God or enjoying peanuts in church?

While we can’t guarantee the safety of children in our midst (from allergies or other threats), we can welcome them to the table of Christ through prayerful, intentional awareness.

Dr. Rachael Lawrence is interim pastor at Enfield American Baptist Church and assistant director at the Center for Education Policy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.