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“Food allergy bullying” – No, really. It’s a thing now.

Food allergies among kids are very real and often have life-threatening implications. Neil Hedley looks at a disturbing trend parents might not know about.
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Neil Hedley, June 20, 2013 9:39:39 AM

It’s not like I invented the term.  But while I was hanging out on The Twitter this week, I got public and privately shared reactions of astonishment, anger and fear in response to three simple words that many parents hadn’t heard together before: Food allergy bullying.

Bullies using food instead of fists isn’t a new thing; a study published in January in the journal Pediatrics revealed that one third of kids with food allergies had experienced it.

Food allergy bullying takes several forms: There’s the dark, scary one that parents’ minds leap to, where kids have peanut butter smeared on their faces or have their sandwiches swapped surreptitiously, and there’s the food allergy version of plain ol’ bullying, with like taunting and name-calling, making targets out of kids who can’t eat certain foods.  I’ve heard that it happens to kids with celiac disease, too.

There’s an organization based out of Virginia called “Food Allergy Research and Education” that seeks to make people more aware of the problem with a Public Service Announcement which, as of this writing, has around 19,000 views on YouTube.  Here’s the link.  That’s a PSA that as parents, we need to spread, because it’s important information for kids, parents and school officials alike.

Schools need to be just as vigilant about food allergy bullying as they are about fights in the schoolyard, because sometimes, teachers (who don’t fully appreciate the dangers posed by food allergies) just think it’s the modern-day equivalent of dipping a little girl’s curls in an inkwell.  When Scott Gordin was a nine year-old student in Las Vegas, a bully rubbed the crumbs from peanut butter crackers through Scott’s hair.  His allergy to peanuts meant that he was in imminent, serious danger.  However, Scott’s Mom told the Today show that school staff simply told the other kid to “be nice”.

That’s not good enough.

What’s the policy at your child’s school as it relates to food allergy bullying?  Do they even have one?  If they don’t, does your kid’s school have an exact count of how many students they have with food allergies?  (Did it just hit you like a ton of bricks that you don’t really know any of those answers?)

Here’s what worries me about the entire “food allergy bullying” thing: Even people in the food service industry are occasionally ignorant about allergens.  I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve walked into an ice cream parlor with my egg-and-nut-allergic daughter and asked if their ice cream has eggs in it, and gotten a blank stare from the other side of the counter, occasionally coupled with an “Uh… I don’t think so.”  (Last time I got an “I don’t think so,” I simply said, “Well, we have three options here.  One, I can just walk out and write a really angry letter to your manager.  Two, you could care enough to find out an answer that you’re a 100 per cent sure of.  Or three, we can hope that you guessed right, and hope that ten minutes from now we don’t have a dead kid on the floor.  What do you suggest?”)  So if even the people who cook and serve our food to us don’t always understand the danger, what makes us think that the neighborhood bully is fully versed on the ramifications of force-feeding some peanut butter to a kid who’s out at recess without an Epi-pen?

In Scott’s case, he got up in front of his class and was part of an education session with his classmates so they did understand.  And we can do the same for our kids.  Talk to your kid’s school.  Arrange to have a local paramedic, or doctor, or someone else speak to the students and teachers alike, and provide the information it takes to keep kids safe.  If necessary, get together with other parents of kids with food allergies and go as far up the food chain as you need to, demanding that action be taken.  These days, social media makes it easier than ever to organize powerful, vocal groups of concerned citizens.  And in this case, it’s hard to look someone in the eye and offer a good reason why this shouldn’t happen as quickly as possible.

(If you like, print out a copy of this article and take it along. Blame me if you need to. I’m happy to talk to any school official who doesn’t see the point in it.)

I don’t think the average classroom bully really intends to kill a child.  But with the ignorance that’s still so pervasive in our cities, towns and schools, this could very quickly escalate from what a bully sees as a prank, to a prank with unintended – and fatal – consequences.


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