Editor’s Note: Food bullying, a subset of bullying in which children with food allergies are threatened with their allergens, is an important issue in schools today. Lauren Rabin, a mom of a child who has food allergies, provided this interview to help others become aware of how to recognize and stop food bullying.
HAKOL: How would you define food bullying?
Lauren Rabin: Food bullying is a threat made with food toward a child with life-threatening allergies. It is another way of bullying someone who is “different.” It is usually done as a joke but can result in a reaction that can easily threaten their health and go beyond what might be resolved by the use of antihistamines or epinephrine. Most of the time the “bully” is unaware of the consequences, which is why food allergy education is so important in schools by professional educators and at home by children’s caregivers. Consuming or coming into contact with a trace amount of an allergen can cause anaphylaxis, a very serious allergic reaction that is rapid in onset and can cause death.
H: How did you first get involved with the anti-food bullying movement?
LR: As a mom of a child who has food allergies, I was forced into the anti-food bullying movement by default. I felt that I had to participate and contribute whatever I could. Whether it’s your child or an allergic friend, someone at some point is bullied because of their allergy. The most common type of food bullying is physical and verbal. The “bullies” will use the food allergen as a scare tactic by sneaking it into lunches and snacks or waving in front of allergic kids’ faces. Insensitive remarks or actions by their peers or their peers’ parents can leave these kids feeling anxious, alone and scared.
H: What motivates you to continue your involvement in the anti-food bullying movement?
LR: I am motivated to stay involved because I have seen improvement. Although we still have a long way to go, many public schools are equipped with the right tools, procedures and plans to deal with issues that may arise in children with allergies. Nurses and teachers are now trained in food allergy protocol and many teachers will allow for “allergy safe” classrooms. The more understanding and aware the teachers and parents are, the more understanding the other children will be. Tolerance and respect always comes from positive examples and lessons, and that’s just what the teachers and school administrators can provide.
H: What are some ways that people can take action about this issue?
LR: I would suggest talking to your children. If there is a child in your home with food allergies, talk to them about food bullying. In many food bullying cases (like any other bullying) children don’t report the incident to an adult either right away or ever. This can exacerbate the situation. Make sure to have open conversations with your children and their peers. These conversations can help the child feel more at ease. Notice if your child is pulling away from their friends or not wanting to eat in front of others. Continue to talk about food allergies and anaphylaxis with friends and colleagues and don’t joke about it. Although it seems funny, it’s not. It is never, ever appropriate to make fun of children. There have been numerous fatalities in school and camp settings due to allergic reactions. Continue to be an advocate for your child. If you’re not, no one else will. We have also learned that you can’t control other people’s actions, only your own and how you react to adversity. We teach our children to be aware of their surroundings, to look out for themselves and each other, and to always be kind. Kindness is contagious.
H: Do you see any Jewish values behind taking action on this issue?
LR: I think that our Jewish values have made dealing with difficult situations a little easier. Our children attended the Jewish Community Center for preschool and day camp, and currently attend Chabad Lubavitch of the Lehigh Valley for Hebrew school where they are taught to be inclusive, respectful and responsible. We constantly reinforce to our children the importance of being kind, confident, tolerant and understanding of others while standing up for what’s right. Nothing will change without taking a stand by speaking up and educating your community. Knowledge is power.