The question sounds like a child’s silly riddle. To Jill Greenwald Robbins ’83, a clinical psychologist and the mother of a child with multiple food allergies, the question is both serious and practical. Its answer was the start of her entirely new career as baker, entrepreneur, and advocate.
When Jill and her husband, Phil, introduced their 18–month–old son, Bradley, to his first bite of egg, the child’s response was immediate: projectile vomiting.
Luckily, their pediatrician was alert to the possibility of food allergies and ran tests. They came back positive for a number of allergies: eggs, obviously, as well as milk and soy, three of the major eight allergens that account for 90 percent of food allergies, according to the U.S. Food and Drug administration. Later, Bradley would develop peanut and tree nut allergies as well.
The Robbins family quickly got an EpiPen (epinephrine to counter an allergic reaction) and adapted their diet, grateful to have identified the potential hazards before introducing those foods to their son.
As Bradley grew older, however, and activities with those beyond the immediate family increased—birthday parties, playgroups, and then school—his allergies began to loom larger in their life.
“Social occasions revolve around baked treats, almost always,” notes Robbins. “For kids with food allergies, social situations present a number of challenges. Depending on the child and the child’s developmental level, the experience of being repeatedly left out can result in sadness, anxiety, anger, and lower self–image.”
Robbins attempts to help her family navigate these experiences led her to veer off her career path as a clinical psychologist, particularly when she considered that Bradley is hardly alone. More than 12 million people in the United States have food allergies. She looked in stores for treats that would be safe for kids with allergies. “I got tired of waiting for the product that we needed,” she says.
An intrepid experimenter and a dedicated mother, she is now president of HomeFree, LLC. Her company offers organic, whole grain, allergy–friendly cookies and cakes made in a dedicated bakery. The cookies have been served in ballparks, camps, and schools. Shaw’s, a New England supermarket chain, recently began offering them in its Wild Harvest section. United Natural Foods (East), the largest natural food distributor in the country, will be picking up her products in February, providing easy access for stores and institutions along the East Coast.
How did an English major with a doctorate in psychology end up bringing a food product to market? After Bradley experienced some poignant and difficult moments at children’s parties, she began experimental baking. She came up with a cake, of sorts, that she served at Bradley’s fourth birthday party.
“No one would eat it except Bradley and Jill,” recalls her husband.
“It was pretty bad,” Robbins concedes,” But I wasn’t about to serve something that Bradley couldn’t eat.”
One day, after a couple of years of unsuccessful efforts, she presented her husband and child with the latest creation. “Try this,” she said, “and tell me what you think.”
“After just one bite, our mouths dropped,” Phil recalls. Jill had created a muffin that was a delicious treat by all standards.
Jill started to write down her recipes, and soon had several that were good.
“Why don’t you write a cookbook for other families like ours?” Phil suggested. She continued her kitchen experiments using the scientific method she’d cultivated as a graduate student: Formulating a recipe, baking, sampling, taking notes, and making changes as much as 10 to 15 times for a single recipe. Her family became used to finding new products on the counter for taste testing: to get into the cookbook, they had to give it at least a 90 out of 100 rating.
Three years (“two normal ones and one very hectic one”) and more than 100 new allergen–free recipes later, Robbins published her recipes in Allergen Free Baking, arranged thematically around occasions such as eating out, school parties, and breakfast, as well as annual festivities such as Thanksgiving and birthday parties. Her hope was that it could be a resource for many people—perhaps parents planning a birthday party for all their child’s friends, those with and without food allergies.
Robbins might have been content to let her foray into producing allergen–free food end there, but for a difficult community event. As the Robbins family was preparing to send Bradley off to first grade, so, too, were the parents of a little girl with an allergy to airborne peanuts— the amount of the legume that is in the air when you can tell that someone nearby is munching on the snack. These parents, along with school administrators, conducted a school meeting to explain why nobody would be able to send his or her child off to school with a peanut–butter sandwich tucked in the lunch box.
Families of children with food allergies can count on one thing: their contemporaries, and those a bit older, are likely to know little about the subject and view them with some skepticism, as though their worries are merely the affectation of an overly cautious parent. “I never knew anyone with food allergies when I was growing up,” is the refrain.
Food allergies, however, are on the rise. The causes remain baffling to experts. So far, specialists can offer only hypotheses. Some put the blame on the widespread use of antibacterial agents, fearing that the body’s immune system, without sufficient bacteria in its environment, is more likely to attack potential allergens in the food we have ingested. Others point to this generation’s tendency to “eat globally,” offering their children potential allergens at an earlier age, and more frequently. Certainly soy, shellfish, and even peanut butter are more prevalent in U.S. diets than they were a half–century ago. Still others fear that the increased amount of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our diet have created foods that our bodies are more likely to attack as foreign substances.
Anecdotally, Jill notes that when they first began packaging her treats, she mentioned to an allergy expert that perhaps her box should mention possible traces of corn. The expert scoffed at the idea that a corn allergy existed. That was only a few years ago.
“Children are testing positive for corn allergies now,” Robbins says. “It’s not one of the big eight—but it’s on the rise.”
The ability of food allergens to trigger the body’s anaphylactic response places food allergies in a more serious category than food sensitivities, or intolerances, with which they are frequently confused.
Those who are lactose intolerant, for example, lack the enzyme needed to digest lactose, or milk sugar, and are apt to suffer gastric disturbances from milk products.
Those with celiac disease often have their disability confused with a food allergy. Instead, celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s toxic reaction to ingested gluten will cause damage to the mucosal surface of the small intestine.
A food allergy, in contrast, occurs when the body treats a food item as a foreign invader: it attacks the material and creates antibodies for it, handling it in the same manner as another person who is allergic to bee stings handles the venom. The body turns on its histamines: eyes itch, hives break out on the skin, the mouth feels tingly, the throat swells—and death by anaphylactic shock is possible unless the sufferer is treated with adrenaline or epinephrine. Similarly to bee sting reactions, a food allergy response is likely to be stronger each time the allergen is introduced to the system. And some people’s immune response kicks into high gear at even miniscule amounts of the allergen—to airborne peanuts, for instance.
Robbins, unlike most of the other parents at the school meeting, had done her share of educating people in Bradley’s life. Still, she was shocked at the level of anger in the room—over peanut–butter sandwiches. As a psychologist, she tried to figure out what was turning peanut butter into an emotional trigger point.
“Peanut butter provides a connection to the home, a comfort food,” she explains. The anger came from the sense of deprivation; parents were being told they could not provide their children with the comfort they sought. This was especially emotional because it these children were leaving home for the first time to enter first grade. Parents wanted, understandably, to ease that transition.
Fear, too, underlay the anger. The parents were afraid of making a mistake and hurting a child—and also afraid of the legal ramifications of a mistake.
Another response was to challenge the allergist who had come to the meeting. The parents had a need not to believe. If peanut butter in the air could really cause a child to die, what if their own child were to develop a severe allergy? It is easier to deny than to face such a frightening possibility.
“I’m a psychologist,” Robbins says. “And Wesleyan teaches us to think from more than one perspective. I could try to understand the parents—and I know that my processing of the meeting has helped me not to be angry, but rather to try to help develop a win–win solution.”
“My experience in this meeting is one of the reasons for HomeFree. It shouldn’t have to be about depriving anyone. The point is to provide something that everyone can enjoy; ideally, something that’s not only inclusive and delicious but that is also wholesome.”
With this goal in mind, and with encouragement from people in the allergy community (including her son), Robbins began toying with the idea of starting a commercial bakery.
She made some preliminary calls to see if she could find ingredients that would meet organic specifications and be kosher pareve (given her goal of inclusiveness), and, most challenging, be safe from potential allergen cross–contamination. After discussion with production managers, she would mentally walk through the steps an ingredient would follow at the plant. No processing plants were considered acceptable if they contained nuts or peanuts or if there were shared lines with other allergens. As much as possible, she was seeking facilities that produced and packaged only the one item.
The result of her quest: She had to eliminate rice milk from her recipes—the preferred producer had dairy on the same lines, raising the possibility of dairy contamination. Others risked trace amounts of nuts, or were made by co–packers that could change at any time without notification. She had a hard time finding natural chocolate chips that met her standards, and while it proved easy to find organic vanilla extract just by Googling it, she discovered that most brands are also produced in facilities that process almond extract, and that just wouldn’t do for Robbins’ treats free of allergens. But after a six–month search, she had the ingredients she needed.
She had a small facility built, since sharing space or using co–packers wouldn’t work for her allergen–free standards. She purchased all new equipment to eliminate the risk of allergen cross–contamination from prior use. Her husband took on the job of chemist, using special kits that indicate the presence of different allergens, down to five parts per million. He not only tests every ingredient batch for peanuts, almonds, eggs, and milk, but also works on random batches of the finished product. HomeFree employees undergo an “allergen–free” test, in a manner of speaking. One of Robbins’ first questions to an applicant is, “How much are peanuts and nuts part of your life?” She is not willing to risk inadvertent contamination. “I began baking for my child,” she says. “I wouldn’t be any less careful for someone else’s child.”
Even in her reporting of allergens Robbins uses care. She does not call her cookies ”wheat free,” even though there is no wheat in her ingredients or in the facility. “We take the word ?free’ very seriously.” In this country, oats and wheat are grown in the same fields. Most people with wheat allergies are fine with oats, but because of those who aren’t, and because she does not conduct allergen testing for wheat, she will not make the claim.
For the first year–and–a–half Robbins used a hand–crank cookie machine (delightful after scooping dough by hand previously) and a hand–wrapper, stickering each package by hand for what began as a mail order business. Then, to make her products more accessible, she upgraded all of her equipment and packaging to be appropriate for stores.
With upgrades came a new challenge. Along with all the tasks that go into daily baking and shipping—not to mention marketing, staff training and supervision, materials sourcing, and developing retail distribution—Robbins needed to take on the role of onsite technician. Although she claims that the technical aspect of running the commercial kitchen is far outside her comfort zone, Robbins has learned, out of necessity, the mechanisms of each machine. Still, the Robbins family claims a first–name basis with the technicians from each machine company, who remain the second line of defense when, for instance, a wrapping machine fails to operate after a particularly productive day of baking.
Still a small, labor–intensive operation, each upgrade—while expensive—has helped them climb into a larger market, making the process more cost–effective, their treat more readily available, and giving the issue of food allergies a higher visibility. In early 2009 they are moving to a larger facility with more upgraded equipment in order to meet the growing demand from families, retail, schools, and various other institutions trying to include those with special dietary needs.
Good press has also helped, with articles in publications as diverse as theIndianapolis Star, New York Newsday, the Birmingham News, VegNews Magazine blog, the Gourmet Retailer blog, and Scholastic Adminstratormagazine, all touting the tastiness of HomeFree treats, some mentioning that the snacks were both organic and allergen–free. Fulfilling both niche markets is unusual, says Robbins, who, with her husband, also represented their company in Boston in October at Natural Products Expo East, the second largest natural food expo in the United States.
While most of their initial sales were over the Web (www.homefreetreats.com)—with orders from all over the country—Robbins knew that having HomeFree treats in one chain could propel the company quickly into much larger distribution. It would also be a corroboration of their conviction: they had a product that people need. When the first large order came, it was an emotional moment.
“When Jill called me from the supermarket parking lot to tell me how much they had ordered, we cried,” says Phil. “Then she called me back to tell me that she’d given me the wrong amount. It was twice that.”
The frustrations, challenges, and uncertain financial returns of running a small business are a regular part of her life, Robbins acknowledges. Yet she loves what she does. Though she works round the clock, she doesn’t think of it as “work.” And at the end of a typical day—which happens after midnight— when she sits down to open her e–mail, she is reminded how important her products are for so many families.
“Parents e–mail us, parents of kids like Bradley, and they tell us what it means to them to have HomeFree treats,” she says. “We offer them something they can serve to everyone—a treat everyone can share, everyone can enjoy, that’s good for you. They talk of what it means to their family that their child can join in with everyone else. Finally, it’s a cookie that’s just a cookie, for their child too.”