Look closely: What’s missing from this idyllic scene of luxury-suited fans at Nationals Park?
The exterior seating for this party suite is one of three areas set aside for the friends and family of those afflicted with a peanut allergy, the sometimes deadly scourge that affects about ¥ 2 percent of all children in the United States under age18, according to the Food Allergy Initiative (FAI), an advocacy group that seeks a cure to food allergies.
While accidental ingestion is most dangerous for peanut allergy sufferers, inhaling peanut proteins is also a concern — especially in places like ballparks where peanuts are cracked on such a grand scale. When a shell is crushed, particles released into the air can cause respiratory symptoms, and residue left on surfaces such as chairs and handrails can cause skin rashes.
As a result, peanut-free days in the nation’s Major League ballparks are becoming more commonplace. About half of all major and minor league parks now offer them. The Minnesota Twins were among the first to kickstart a peanut-free program in 2006, and the Washington Nationals followed suit in 2007 when they played at RFK Stadium.
At Nats Park, a series of safeguards has upped the popularity and profile of peanut-free days. Instead of being quarantined in a section below, the special fans are in the three party suites, located up high in left field, away from the peanut-crushing crowd below. Besides an outdoor seating area with a great view, each suite is outfitted with tables and plush seating, AC and a hi-def flat-screen TV.
The Nationals had planned three peanut-free days for the 2011 season, all of which sold out. However, demand was so great that an extra day has been scheduled for Sept. 24. Despite the luxury accommodations, ticket prices are steeply discounted: $25 a pop. That’s way down from the suites’ normal rate, which doesn’t allow the sale of individual tickets. To rent out the entire suite (32 seats), it would normally run a deep-pocketed patron $3,750 Fridays through Sundays and $4,200 during the week.
Brian Beck, a senior account executive for Nats ticket sales, acknowledges that because background checks are not done to ensure that participants actually have a peanut allergy, there may be people who aim to take advantage of the special offer. To minimize the potential for abuse, the stadium sells 24 of the 32 seats in each of the three suites. However, as Christopher Gargani, vice president and managing director of sales and client services for the Washington Nationals, stresses, it’s “not about selling baseball tickets . . . I think we’re doing a pretty good thing.”
Among the children sitting in comfy blue seats at the July 28 game was 10-year-old Christopher Lukeman of Elkton, who, at age 3, stopped breathing temporarily after eating something that had peanuts in it. Before attending a peanut-free day at Nationals Stadium last year, he had never been to a Major League Baseball game for fear of a reaction.
“They washed everything down, and they cleaned everything thoroughly,” said Christopher’s mother, Lori. Unlike some others with peanut allergies, both airborne and ingested peanut proteins affect Christopher. “We’ve been to a couple minor league games before, where they have a peanut-free game day or sections, and people just wander into your section and sit down and start eating stuff. Things are flying. It’s hard,” she said.
Gargani says that Nats Park is “really very conservative” when it comes to such measures. A series of cross-checks requires that the suites be cleaned the evening prior to and the day of the game. An emergency medical technician is stationed nearby the suites, and a buffer zone is created by keeping at least two nearby suites empty and/or free of peanut products. Fried foods throughout the park are cooked in canola oil instead of peanut oil, which makes concession-stand choices easier.
Still, going to the games remain a challenge for many families. The Lukemans, originally from New Jersey and steadfast Mets fan, had previously petitioned the New York team three times, asking them to hold a peanut-free day. Despite some swag that arrived in the mail (a jumble of leftover promotional trinkets that included a bobble head), the Mets said they could not accommodate the request.
Since then, the New York team has begun a limited peanut-free program, which was put together with the help of FAI. However, Citi Field has held only one peanut-free event thus far, in a single-party suite at the May 3 game against the San Francisco Giants. It was the first game of a home stand, so officials reasoned the amount of peanut matter floating through the air would be minimal. While the Mets have expressed an interest in hosting more peanut-free days, there are currently none planned for the remainder of this season or next.
As fate would have it, the Nationals faced off against the Mets the day the Lukeman family attended.
“We applaud the Washington Nationals,” said Christopher’s father, Chris, adding with a laugh, “even though we’re not fans of them.”
Tepper is the D.C. food editor for NBC’s TheFeast.com. She lives in the District, where she writes on a variety of subjects, including music and Judaism.