Children's museum sparks backlash for new PB&J cafe: 'Nut allergies are no joke'

Stonewall Kitchen's PB&J Cafe leased space from Boston Children's Museum, promoting concern over children with peanut allergies. (Photo: Facebook/Boston Children's Museum)
Stonewall Kitchen's PB&J Cafe leased space from Boston Children's Museum, causing concern about children with peanut allergies. (Photo: Facebook/Boston Children's Museum)

The Boston Children’s Museum is defending a new adjoining restaurant called the PB&J Cafe after parents of children with peanut allergies called the opening a “terrible” decision.

On Friday, the Massachusetts museum (which operates adhering to COVID-19 guidelines) announced the opening of the adjacent PB&J Cafe, a business owned by Stonewall Kitchen, which serves a “family-friendly” menu with variations on the classic sandwich, along with baked goods and soup. The museum had leased the 3,000-square-foot location to the café, following occupancies by McDonald’s and Au Bon Pain.

The café is not inside the museum (it’s accessible through a museum entrance that also leads into the Stonewall Kitchen store and past a general lunch area), but the Facebook news infuriated some parents of children with — and without — peanut allergies.

“We are huge fans of the museum and were members for years but having a child with a life threatening peanut allergy means we can’t navigate the museum safely anymore,” wrote a follower. Another said, “This is an outrage! With peanuts being one of the top allergens, to choose in this climate to open the PB&J cafe is making a conscious decision to lose patrons.”

Many said the opening was a “horrible idea,” “unsafe” and “misguided” because children with peanut allergies would have fewer meal options due to contact transmission fears.

According to the Mayo Clinic, allergies to the legume are potentially fatal and are one of the most common triggers for serious allergy attacks, occurring when the immune system “mistakenly identifies” peanuts as a harmful substance. The symptomatic response includes skin rashes, digestive issues or sometimes anaphylaxis, a tightening of the airways that can be treated with an epinephrine auto-injector.

One to two percent of children in the U.S are affected by peanut allergies, says the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Peanut allergies can affect one’s quality of life due to constant vigilance and interference with basic tasks such as eating or socializing,” Dr. Corinne Keet, an associate professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Medicine, tells Yahoo Life, adding that the cause is not entirely understood.

Children’s museums may be a source of concern parents for their hands-on displays and because small kids are prone to putting items in their mouths or forgetting to wash their hands. However, she says, a severe reaction through contact transmission is less likely than if an allergic person were to ingest the product.

In 2017, the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsed recommendations that parents introduce peanut butter to babies between the ages of 4 and 6 months, provided infants can comfortably eat solid foods. It also noted that babies with eczema, a skin condition that puts them at increased risk for peanut allergies, can be fed peanut butter at about 6 months old. However, peanut butter (and peanuts) are still choking hazards that are more easily ingested in smoothies, for example.

Some airlines have dropped the snack from in-flight menus to better protect customers with peanut-related allergies, including Southwest and Korean Air. In January, the Food and Drug Administration approved a treatment called Palforzia to help lessen allergic reactions to peanuts, starting at age 4.

On Saturday, the Boston Children’s Museum responded to the hundreds of comments while including a statement from Stonewall Kitchen. “The health and safety of our guests, especially children, is our primary priority,” it read. “Please be assured that we genuinely understand the gravity that this allergen poses for some children (and adults) and are diligent to follow all regulations and protocols to keep people safe. As a food and restaurant company regulated by the FDA and numerous other agencies, we manufacture and serve products with nearly every major allergen, so we are acutely aware of the risks associated with allergens.”

The museum noted that the café is a separate business from the museum (which does not allow food inside), and the two businesses are separated by a communal “brown bag” area that allows peanut products. Guests aren’t required to enter the lunch area or the café in order to visit the museum, and allergen warning signs are posted on café entrances.

The post stated that previous restaurants in the leased space also served allergen foods and that the museum currently serves clam chowder, which affects those with milk allergies. The café also serves almond butter as a peanut butter alternative.

But the update seemed to further divide the audience. “One person’s safe is always someone else’s danger,” someone wrote. “Pizza slices, Egg salad, grilled cheese, or pb&j the risk for someone with a life threatening allergy would be equal. Shellfish is the top allergen of adults but we don’t mass lash out at a restaurant who serves chowder.” Another wrote, “If you don’t feel comfortable eating there then don’t. No reason to not take the kids to the museum.”

Another response read: “You just uninvited a whole community and are trying to make excuses for it.”

A museum spokesperson tells Yahoo Life, “We have read every comment, and we take your heartfelt concerns very seriously. We are working with Stonewall Kitchen to find a solution that meets the needs of all families, including those with allergy concerns, and that offers safe and appealing menu options for all families that visit the museum. We want everyone to feel safe and welcome at the Museum and ask for your patience as we work with Stonewall Kitchen to address the concerns that have been raised.”

A spokesperson from Stonewall Kitchen tells Yahoo Life that the general response has “given us pause and we are assessing how we can increase messaging in our store about our offerings and encourage handwashing to ensure everyone’s safety.” The café will add signs to the brown bag area reminding guests to wash their hands before visiting the museum and stickers on takeout bags that contain peanut butter items. It will also consider offering a second peanut butter substitute and reducing the number of peanut butter items on its menu.

“We weren’t expecting this type of reaction, in part because the café is not inside the museum, and also because the cafe isn’t really all about peanut butter,” the spokesperson tells Yahoo Life. “We just thought that ‘PB&J Cafe’ was a cute name, not realizing that some would think that that’s the only item, or even the primary item on the menu. We were certainly not intending to be insensitive to those with allergies.”

She added, “Certainly we understand the sensitivity around this topic in general and take it very seriously. As a separate entity from the Boston Children’s Museum, with a separate space, we knew that guests did not have to enter our store at all to still enjoy a visit to the museum. That said, we are listening to the concerns and considering our options of how we can be more inclusive.”

Keet tells Yahoo Life that navigating a children’s museum illustrates the burden of allergies. “We don’t see peanuts as the enemy,” she says, “but it’s reasonable for parents to be [cautious].”

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