For parents of young children with food allergies, one of the hardest rites of passage is that of entrusting their child to the care of another person. Something as commonplace as attending a morning preschool class can be fraught with potential hazards: snacks, cross contact with other children’s food-smeared hands or even a handful of Play-Doh could trigger a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction.

Olesya Rudin, of Dayton, experienced more than misgivings when her now 8-year-old son, Alexander, was old enough to begin socializing with children his own age in a learning environment. Because he has severe allergies to so many foods, three different preschools refused to enroll him.

“We had multiple emergencies that required medical treatment, and nobody was willing to accept that risk,” Rudin said.

Eventually, the family was able to work out an acceptable solution with Bet Yeladim Preschool in Columbia, but the experience left Rudin wondering how many other families faced similar difficulties.

When she quit her accounting job to begin home schooling Alexander, Rudin decided to use her allergy management expertise to establish a home-based preschool to give other parents of food allergic children a more acceptable option.

Flexible Options

Beginning this August, Rudin’s AllergyFree Family Child Care will offer a full-day program for children 10 weeks to 5 years old and a part-time preschool program for children 2 to 5 years of age. The school can accept up to eight children for enrollment.

“We will operate seven days a week and can even do overnight care for children whose parents are shift workers,” Rudin said.

AllergyFree Family Child Care has already opened its doors since receiving its license in September 2014, and currently serves two children part-time and two others on an as-needed basis.

“We’re prepared to accept children with food and environmental allergies, asthma, environmental and chemical sensitivities, or any child that could benefit from my program,” Rudin said.

The educational component will follow the Calvert Homeschool Curriculum, but Rudin said she also intends to provide piano-based music education, knitting classes, crafts and even age-appropriate instruction on food allergy management and safe cooking practices, and menu preparation.

Science, physical education and outdoor play and games will be incorporated into daily activities, and Rudin intends to use the family’s brood of chickens, kept in a separate enclosed area outdoors, to teach children about animal care.

“Even though my son is allergic to eggs, he can still handle them as long as they aren’t broken,” Rudin said.

He can also feed the chickens, thanks to the efforts of a local feed supplier who helped design a gluten-free feed mix that is safe for Alexander to handle.

Undeveloped Niche

Rudin doesn’t yet know exactly how much local demand there is for the service she is providing, but national statistics indicate a potentially large pool of clients.

“Food allergy is a serious and growing public health issue affecting 15 million Americans,” said James Baker in a statement released in October, when he assumed his role as CEO of the nonprofit Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) organization in McLean, Va. An allergist by profession, Baker also serves as director of the University of Michigan’s Food Allergy Center.

FARE estimates that the disease affects one out of every 13 children under 18 in the United States, while the Centers for Disease Control study released in 2013 reported that food allergies among children increased approximately 50% between 1997 and 2011.

A 2014 FARE patient survey also indicated inconsistencies in treatment of life-threatening allergic reactions.

“While we were encouraged to see favorable trends in the treatment of serious allergic reactions by Emergency Department and Emergency Medical Services staff, it is also clear that there is more work to be done to help ensure that anaphylaxis is properly evaluated and treated in the emergency setting,” said Baker.

With that in mind, Rudin thinks parents of food-allergic children may feel more at ease with a preschool run by someone with first-hand experience in food allergy management. Her 15-year-old daughter, Natalie, also has multiple food allergies.

Making a Difference

Breakfasts, snacks and lunches prepared at the preschool will be free of the eight major food allergens – tree nuts, peanuts, fish, crustacean shellfish, milk, soybean, wheat and eggs – and meals will be tailored according to the list of allergies provided for each student using dedicated pots, pans and utensils.

Approximately 75% of the food used at the preschool is organic and natural, Rudin said, and any milk or milk-related foods served to students who can tolerate dairy will be served according to Family Child Care regulations.

“It took me three years to develop healthy gluten-free bread recipes that work,” she said. Utilizing grains such as teff, quinoa and brown rice, combined with non-dairy and non-egg binders, such as fruits and arrowroot starch, Rudin’s breads have the look, texture and even the taste of hearty breads made with wheat or rye flour.

While it would seem that the demand for what’s offered so far might warrant expansion, it’s first things first, at least for the time being. “I don’t have any big plans to expand the program beyond what I’m able to do with a home-based preschool right now,” Rudin said.

Nevertheless, she’s open to the idea of perhaps opening a larger preschool in Columbia, should an overwhelming demand develop.

“Young children have been alienated from many things for too long,” Rudin said. “I just want to see if I can make a difference for them and their parents.”