When I talk with other moms about the food allergies in my family, they usually say something like, “What can you eat?” or “I couldn’t do it.” I always assure them that they could, in fact, manage it if they had to. I’m not saying it’s easy, but with time you learn a few things. Even years into this journey, I’m still learning.
The stuff you’d expect came around pretty quickly. Read every label every time. Communicate clearly when dining out. Check apps and websites before going out. Keep safe snacks in my bag. Always bring our own food to events and parties. It’s cool. I do these things almost on auto-pilot now. But here’s what I’m still learning about, and it isn’t pretty.
Maybe because the physical realities of food allergies are so visible, the psychological, mental, and emotional aspects are easy to miss. In addition to the stress of policing of every morsel, kids with food allergies may feel embarrassed, alienated, and humiliated. Like any other characteristic that might be used by a child to leverage power over another, food allergies are becoming a popular target. In fact, according to Food Allergy Research and Education, children with a food allergy are twice as likely to be bullied as their peers. Before you dismiss me as a humorless keyboard warrior, let’s just look at a few examples of this trend I’ve experienced first-hand.
Here’s What Food Allergy Bullying Looks Like
One way I have witnessed food bullying is the disbelief or denial of someone’s allergy. “I’ve seen them eat bread, so I just lied and said it was gluten-free pasta.” Everyone has an anecdote of someone who decided that not eating something was trendy and they were annoyed by it. But let’s remember that allergies are different than sensitivities, both are valid, and not everyone asking for a food accommodation is lying or fad dieting. Not only can food allergies manifest in ways other than anaphylaxis, such as rashes or digestive upset, the result is not always immediate. Just because you don’t see a symptom, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
DOUBT + ALL THE QUESTIONS
Another bullying technique is the demand for medical information. It’s almost always in a restaurant setting and sometimes sounds innocuous. A person requests their food without an allergen and then they are quizzed. Now, in some cases, this is done because a kitchen has allergen protocols and will work to avoid cross-contamination. That’s great! But many times the food handler just wants to decide whether the reason for avoiding a food is important enough for them to do anything about it. I compare this to a person ordering food and asking for no mushrooms. Since they aren’t a common allergen, there probably won’t be any questions and the food will arrive as requested. But if the person asks for it without dairy, someone might decide a little butter won’t hurt since you didn’t say “allergy.” Or worse, the staff isn’t prepared or educated on exactly what’s in the dish, the importance of taking those requests seriously, and executing the meal accordingly. No one has the right to your private medical information, and you shouldn’t have to disclose it just to get food prepared the way you request.
MY ALLERGY IS HARD FOR YOU
An ironic form of food bullying is parents lamenting the difficulties they endure because a child in the classroom has a life-threatening food allergy. It makes me cringe to hear parents bemoaning the lack of candy or certain foods, or parties at school because one kid can’t eat what’s served. I was on a peanut-free flight and people actually booed the announcement. It was a minor inconvenience and grown people were booing! Sure, adapting what you send to school to protect the life of another child might be aggravating, but even a little empathy can go a long way; imagine what it must be like for the person who has to deal with that allergy all day every day.
Then there are the “jokes”. There was the commercial that aired on Nick, Jr. that called a gluten-free diet (or perhaps “people like that”) gross. Parents are upset over an animated film depicting the antagonist being assaulted with his food allergen. Both incidents have made waves in the food allergy community and have elicited apologies. Perhaps most hurtful, though, are the comment sections, where faceless people claim we’re too sensitive or PC out of control. I love a laugh as much as the next mom, but when you’re telling a child that what could kill them is funny … it’s just not. There are plenty of real-life examples of these jokes going too far. Whether children realize the gravity of their actions or not, waving allergens in the faces of other kids or touching surfaces with contaminated hands is potentially deadly bullying.
I realize that you may get tired of hearing me analyze everything that comes near my child’s mouth. Trust me, I wish we didn’t have to avoid birthday cake, smoothies, and play dough. It would be a dream to not have to look up the ingredients of all the Halloween candy (and then go buy some expensive safe stuff to trade for it). I understand if you’re tired of hearing it.
I understand, because I get tired of doing it.
But can I ask a favor? Can I ask that you help stop food bullying?
Editor’s Note: If you’d like more information about food allergies in general, or how you can be more proactively involved in helping stop food allergy bullying, Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) is a great place to start. We especially love their “Be a PAL” section for parents and elementary aged kids. Snack Safely is another resource we’ve found informative and helpful.