Giving for Food Allergies is Anything But Peanuts Thanks to Donors Like David Koch

America's upper class is awash in spare cash as never before. One result is a growing flow of money to established philanthropic causes. Another result is the bankrolling of entirely new causes. A case in point from the health area: food allergies, an issue which has preoccupied elementary schools, some of which now treat peanuts as akin to cyanide. The issue has now drawn in some heavy-weight funders, including David Koch, the fourth-richest American. 

I'll say more about Koch's big food-allergy give in a minute, but first let me mention some of the other funders who got to this area first. 

Among the earliest food allergy funders were Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe, who helped establish the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute in New York in the late 1990s with the mission to beef up research, patient care, and education in the field of food allergy.

Elliot Jaffe made his fortune with the Dress Barn women's clothing stores, and the Jaffes got into this issue because of their granddaughter. A handful of other wealthy New York families also helped get the Food Allergy Institute off the ground, which came to be housed at the Mt. Sinai Medical Center. The Jaffes have since made a stream of steady gifts to support food allergy research and education. 

In 2007, David and Denise Bunning tapped a finance fortune to give $6 million to the Food Allergy Project (FAP) in Lake Forest, Illinois, an outfit they had founded in 2005. In turn, that money was used for grants for food allergy research and work aimed at raising awareness around food allergies.

Why did the Bunnings open their checkbook for this cause? For personal reasons, just like the Jaffes. Two of their children were "so allergic to nuts, milk and eggs that touching a birthday cake or candy bar could trigger a life-threatening reaction," as the Chicago Tribune said in an article about Denise Bunning and other parents struggling with allergies. 

Because Bunning and her husband were rich, they could do something big about this issue. Denise Bunning also become a leading activist and author on food allergies, which she says afflicts 1 out of every 13 elementary school children. 

More recently, in 2012, David Koch and his wife Julia made a $10 million pledge to the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at the Mount Sinai Medical Center. The money created the David H. and Julia Koch Research Program in Food Allergy Therapeutics. 

Koch, of course, is well known for his political activism. He's also a huge cancer funder, a cause he took up after getting prostate cancer. With food allergies, too, the stakes are personal, as with other big donors in the space. Koch's son, David Jr., has severe nut and shellfish allergies, and is required to carry an epi-pen.

Related - David H. Koch Charitable Foundation: Grants for Disease

Koch has spoken at the annual Food Allergy Ball at the Waldorf Astoria, which is helmed by Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE). Julia has been a Gala Dinner chair of this event which has honored prominent restaurateurs such as Ming Tsai and Marcus Samuelsson for their commitment to allergy advocacy. 

A number of other food allergy donors are also worth mentioning: The Harris Family Foundation, the Sack Family Foundation, the Naddisy Foundation, the Triad Foundation, and the Towerbrook Foundation. We can't dig into the backstory of each of these givers, but we'd bet there's a personal connection to food allergies in nearly every case. 

So is the food allergy issue yet one more example of how the rich shape society, in this instance moving a once obscure health concern to the front burner? Maybe. But it's also true that nearly 15 million Americans, including around 6 million children, suffer from some sort of allergy according to FARE. A recent study also found that childhood peanut allergies, one of the most dangerous food allergies, has more than tripled in the last few decades. As someone who carries around an epi-pen, I can say that allergies are no joke. 

And there's clearly much work to be done in this area. The Koch gift at Jaffe is being used to push forward research into new food allergy therapeutics, which are badly needed. In the past, the institute has also looked at the social stigma attached to food allergies, including a study that found that approximately 35 percent of children over the age of five who have food allergies experience bullying, teasing, or harassment as a result.

Poor kids, right? Good thing they have some billionaires on their side.