Cover Feature

The Inside Scoop: People with Food Allergies

Photographer: Jill Lotenberg

Fox 5’s news anchor Lori Stokes Gives Back with FARE

“I’m a member of an exclusive club that no one wants to be a part of,” said Lori Stokes, Fox 5 NY anchorwoman and a new board member of the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE).

The club: those with life-threatening food allergies.

After years of involvement with FARE, Stokes is now using her position, voice, and long-held commitment to public service to help spread the word about food allergies, find a cure, and eventually disband the club.

Stokes first became aware of her allergy to tree nuts at age 14, when her parents hosted a dinner party and a bite of walnut-laden Waldorf salad sent her to the hospital with an anaphylactic reaction.

“At that time, no one really understood food allergies. People thought it was all in your head,” Stokes recalled. Her parents didn’t have allergies, though one of Stokes’ two daughters also has a tree nut allergy.

Life after that became a cautious relationship with food, even as Stokes became an award-winning television journalist and anchor, working in various East Coast markets and ultimately New York City with MSNBC, WABC-TV, and now Fox 5.

“You live a life thinking you’re isolated, that you’re the only person who has some allergy to something. It was just something I lived with my entire life,” Stokes said.

Some 17 years ago, when Stokes declined a co-anchor’s on-air offer of a bite of a walnut brownie and explained her allergy, Amy Rappaport, a volunteer with the Food Allergy Initiative (FAI, a predecessor of FARE) got in touch, and a long relationship began. The organization was seeking someone with a high profile to raise awareness of the issue.

“She came armed with several huge binders explaining the research FAI was doing, and how they wanted me to be a part of it,” Stokes said.

She also began attending or emceeing various events, including FARE’s annual New York Spring Luncheon (being held this year on April 25 at Cipriani 42nd Street). In December 2017, she was named to FARE’s board, after years of casual discussion about increasing her involvement with the organization.

She comes by the desire to serve naturally. Her father, Louis Stokes, was a 30-year member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and was the first African-American member of the House Armed Services Committee. Her uncle Carl Stokes was the first African-American mayor of a major U.S. city (Cleveland).

“You’re not allowed to be a Stokes without serving the public in some way. That’s how we roll,” Stokes noted. “That’s your entry into the world, and that’s what you do in life. We’re blessed to be in a position to be able to serve others. I am so proud of what my dad did for America, and in my small way I try to do what I can.”

FARE has already accomplished a great deal in educating the medical community and the general public about food allergies, and supporting groundbreaking research. Over the last year, FARE has introduced the College Search Tool, which helps students with food allergies find colleges and universities that can accommodate their needs. Also launched in 2017 was the FARE Patient Registry, a password-protected database that allows allergy patients and their legal representatives to share their stories anonymously with members of the research community.

More than 3,000 patients joined the registry in its first year.

The organization also granted more than $1 million in Food Allergy Awards to support research by three scientists. Recipients of the 2015 awards have already made great strides, with one honoree identifying an immune cell found only in individuals with allergies, while another showing that a mother’s diet can protect nursing newborns against food allergies.

Yet while awareness of allergies has soared, tragic accidents still happen. Stokes cited the 2017 death of three-year-old Elijah Silvera, who had been given a grilled cheese sandwich at his Manhattan pre-school despite documentation of his milk allergy, as one motivator to increase her involvement.

“There had to be more of a commitment, there had to be more that I could do,” Stokes said. “There have been so many people who have been instrumental in legislation and awareness. I started to think about how I could amp up my responsibility, to find out what I could do in my position.”

Stokes has reached out to families (including the Silveras) who have suffered losses due to allergies and continues to report on the topic. It was during an interview with FARE CEO and Chief Medical Officer James R. Baker, Jr. that he invited her to join the board.

“While we have seen improvements in recognition of food allergy as a serious public health issue over the years, it is clear to us that more work needs to be done to increase understanding that food allergies are potentially life-threatening,” Baker said. “We all play a role in helping to keep people with food allergies safe. We are fortunate to have Lori Stokes, who as a member of the media has raised awareness about food allergies for many years, serving on the Board of Directors at FARE.”

Fortunately, Stokes noted, her producers and employers, from WABC in previous to Fox 5 today, have been uniformly and enthusiastically supportive of her efforts to increase awareness, devoting substantial time to stories about food allergies and companies that manufacture safe food for allergy sufferers. In a recent report, Stokes devoted eight minutes to a story about a nut-free ice cream. However, the occasional cooking segment can be problematic. Stokes co-anchors “Good Day New York” with Roseanna Scotto, whose family owns the Fresco by Scotto restaurant and often appears on the show.

“When I learned I’d be working at Fox 5, my initial reaction was ‘Oh goody! I get to eat all this fabulous food,’” Stokes said. “Then my second thought was, ‘Wait a minute. I have to know exactly what’s in that food.’ And there have been a couple of times when I’ve had to see what’s in a dish. Roseanna has been so understanding. I’m always so conscious that I never put myself in a position where I’ll have something that’s life threatening. And it’s been such a wonderful problem to have because I can tell stories.”

Stokes is still determining where she will concentrate her energies on her FARE board service. Communications certainly is an obvious aspect, but not the only one.

“We still need a cure, we still need a vaccine. And I’d like to know the science behind everything,” said Stokes, who started her career as a medical reporter. “I’d like to learn more about the research. You never know where life will take you. It’s a beautiful thing. I’m blessed to be a part of this and a part of FARE.”

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