When Scott Gordin was nine years old, a classmate rubbed peanut butter cracker crumbs through his hair. When Owen Kellogg was a kindergartener, another boy at school threatened to force him to eat a peanut. As isolated incidents of bullying, these acts may simply seem rude and obnoxious, but for the 5.9 million U.S. kids living with a life-threatening food allergy, such stories—where food is akin to a deadly weapon—are downright chilling.
“It takes only one lunch or cupcake birthday party for other children to know which classmates cannot eat nuts, eggs, milk or even a trace of wheat. It can take longer for them to grasp how frightening it is to live with a life-threatening allergy,” writes Catherine Saint Louis in The New York Times. “Surprisingly, classmates may prey on this vulnerability, plotting to switch a child’s lunch to see if she gets sick, for example, or spitting milk at a child’s face and causing a swift anaphylactic reaction.”
Such incidents are happening at schools across the U.S., and it’s catching the attention of physicians, allergy advocates and parents.
In January, Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, published results of a survey that showed being bullied was common for kids with food allergies, and that nearly half the time, parents had no knowledge that it was occurring.
The uptick in food bullying prompted the Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) to put out a public service announcement of their own. The video is heart-tugging.
“Food allergy bullying can have serious emotional and physical consequences. After we released our PSA last month, we heard from many more parents who told us heartbreaking stories about their children being bullied because of their food allergies. Something that may be seen as a harmless prank can actually be quite dangerous,” John Lehr, CEO, FARE, tells TakePart in an email.
States too are taking food bullying more seriously. According to The New York Times piece, 15 states have food allergy guidelines for schools. In Texas, that includes “zero tolerance for bullying related to food allergy,” while Arizona schools recommend cafeteria monitors who can squelch a bullying event quickly.
According to FARE, there was an 18 percent increase in food allergies between 1997-2007. While there’s no clear answer as to why the numbers have been going up, research suggests that children from more affluent families may be more likely to develop life-threatening peanut allergies.
Eight foods—including milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish—make up nearly 90 percent of all allergic reactions. Some vanish with age, but many persist into adulthood.
While the focus is often on the children doing the bullying, that’s not always the most effective means of addressing the situation. Negative reactions frequently come from teachers and other parents too. And while there’s no current cure for food allergies, there may be one way to curb food bullies: education.
“Unfortunately, we know that both kids and adults can perpetuate food allergy bullying, and we have heard many saddening stories from across the country. But what may be surprising to learn is how powerful education about the severe and potentially life-threatening nature of food allergies can be—we have heard from many people about how educating the bully actually turned them into a great advocate for the cause,” says Lehr.