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FARE Blog October 05, 2020

Taking a Stand Against Food Allergy Bullying

When it comes to food allergy bullying, community education and understanding are essential.

Guest post by Arul Nigam


Arul Nigam is a high-school senior in Northern Virginia. He has been actively involved in the food allergy community for the last five years and is the co-founder of AllergySmartz – an app that helps travelers with food allergies cross language barriers and communicate the precautions for allergy-safe food preparation to restaurant staff abroad. Arul has also shared a wealth of information related to allergy advocacy, dining with allergies, travel tips, allergy-friendly foods, holiday treat kits and much more on his blog, FoodAllergyLowdown.

Pies in the face on Pi Day and dunk tanks at school fundraisers, when done safely, remind us that practical jokes and lighthearted teasing are OK when both parties are in on the fun. But when it comes to food allergy bullying, the victim’s consent and safety are always lacking.

Every fall, as thousands of students nationwide eagerly leap into the new school year, looking forward to days filled with fun and exciting new learning experiences, many students, unfortunately, embark with great trepidation. As victims of bullying in years past, students with severe food allergies enter the hallways fearful of classmates who will use food as a weapon. Whether it is a verbal attack, a threat to harm the student with the allergen, or any other form of intimidation, food allergy bullying is toxic.

However, unlike other forms of bullying, which may be rooted in jealousy, hatred, rivalry, or other misaligned interpersonal dynamics, the root of food allergy bullying is usually a lack of awareness. If students understood that food allergies are not a lifestyle choice – in fact, the very opposite – most would be more mindful of their actions and realize that their friends with food allergies are not just getting preferential treatment. This unfortunate misconception often arises from special goodies during class parties or separate dining tables in the cafeteria.

As with any form of bullying, prevention is essential. Students with and without food allergies have to mobilize together to make substantial, actionable change. The values of mutual respect in interactions, mindfulness of differences, and acceptance of diversity in every walk of life should be unshakeable – but sometimes end up being the missing link. These values must become foundational across all school systems and communities.

Bringing a systemic change will require persistence and a focus on early education. Some art classes could be spent designing anti-food allergy bullying posters, while older students attend workshops on food allergy awareness. As student ambassadors, we can reach out to Parent-Teacher Associations to organize guest lectures about food allergies or coordinate fun runs/walks for food allergy awareness. The whole community must be involved in making education a core part of the values with which children are raised, setting a positive tone for food allergy management and understanding.

Ultimately, this effort could come under a more holistic approach to combating bullying, in turn, yielding positive changes for ending food allergy bullying too! Nevertheless, it is essential to be conscious of the distinction between malicious and ignorant bullying, the latter being more pervasive in the food allergy community.

For boys and girls who are enamored of superheroes, their vigilance and ability to say, “No, thanks!” to cake, candy, ice cream or other desserts at a party or a celebration reflect their grit and determination: they should know they are superheroes! Even for older adults, peer pressure is intimidating. It takes courage to go to a restaurant with friends and speak to a manager or server to explain dietary concerns. In our food-centric culture, bringing your own allergy-safe meals to an event may prompt endless and intrusive questions from the host and guests, even if they are not meant to be offensive.

When young people learn to advocate, they build character. They should be assured that succumbing to food allergy bullying does not mean they are weak. Together, let’s speak up for our friends with food allergies when they can’t find their voice and create a better way forward!

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