Food as a weapon? Sounds a little far-fetched, depending on your experience. But for those of us who have swelled up at the touch of a nut or other allergen, or seen someone close to us do the same, it is easy to imagine. Unfortunately, it is also easy for school age children to imagine. A recent study published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology reports on the frequency of bullying targeting children with food allergies. According to the survey data, approximately 25% reported negative interactions with other children focused around food allergies. And of those, 1/3 experienced physical bullying regarding their food allergies.
Although we weren't contacted for this study, Sophie falls in that last third. Thankfully, she has only been physically targeted once, but once is certainly more than enough when it comes to this kind of thing.
When Sophie was in 1st grade, a girl she didn't know sat down next to her at lunch. Sophie's food allergies came up in conversation, and the girl held up a cookie from her own lunch, asking, "Can you eat this cookie?" When Sophie said, "No, it probably has wheat and eggs in it," the other girl put the cookie down right next to Sophie's food, getting crumbs all over the place. Sophie was shaken by the incident. She decided she was finished with her lunch anyway and hurried outside to recess.
Thankfully, that afternoon she spoke to me about the incident and I had the opportunity to speak with her teacher. Her teacher was furious and quickly took steps to educate the child about the seriousness of the action.
In this case, we don't really know if the "bully" understood the potential damage she could inflict. Sophie interpreted her tone as negative, but without another witness we couldn't say for sure. But in other cases, intent seems much more clear. There have now been several cases in the United States in which the bully has actually been arrested and charged with a crime for food allergy related bullying.
On the surface, bullying is bullying is bullying. But the fact that many adults, including those in a position of authority at schools, underestimate the severity of food allergies increases the risk for the targets of food allergy bullying. Threatening a child with a food he or she is allergic to is tantamount to threatening that child with a loaded gun. Both can kill, and equally quickly.