Be a PAL

By Rachel Sircy

With a new school year fast approaching, I thought it would be a great time to address a serious subject that both you and your kids should be up on: Food Allergy Bullying.

Let me begin with a personal story that was really the catalyst for me wanting to get involved in this anti-bullying campaign. Of course, it’s no secret that I have celiac disease, which is not a gluten allergy, but an intolerance of gluten. What this means for me is that, thankfully, gluten doesn’t cause an anaphylactic reaction. I don’t get rashes when I eat gluten and there’s no danger of my throat swelling shut. So, this personal story, which is really two stories, is about someone else that I know. The first story is one I’m going to tell on myself. I have a daughter who is a very, VERY picky eater. For the longest time one of the only foods I could get her to eat was peanut butter sandwiches. One Wednesday night my husband and I were running late to church and our daughter (we refer to her as HRH or “Her Royal Highness”) hadn’t eaten anything for dinner. She was only about 18 months old at the time and so, I felt like I couldn’t make her go for an entire church service without dinner. So, I made a peanut butter sandwich and put it in a plastic sandwich bag in her diaper bag. HRH ended up eating the sandwich in the church nursery right before church started and I thoughtlessly threw away some of the crusts (which had peanut butter smeared on them) in the trash can. A friend of mine from church who has a severe allergy to all nuts ended up having to leave church that night because she started having an allergic reaction to something in church. Now, I didn’t put two and two together at first. In fact, I didn’t even see her family get up and leave in the middle of the service. I never would have had any idea that I was the one who probably caused her reaction if the pastor had not announced that this woman and her family had had to leave due to an allergic reaction. He asked that we all be more mindful of what we ate before we came to church and he mentioned (though he didn’t ask anyone to confess) that part of a peanut butter sandwich had been found in the nursery trash can.

You can imagine how awful I felt in that moment.

Despite having an allergy to all nuts that is so severe that merely being in the presence of nuts or of nut butter could set off an allergic reaction, my friend told me that she has been unable to afford to get an EpiPen for a long time. This may not sound like a real problem in a country where most people can afford their medications and where there almost always seems to be a way to get your hands on what you need. However, there has been an incredible price spike in these life-saving syringes in recent years and even more recently, there has been a shortage of EpiPens, so that even those who can afford them cannot buy as many as they may need (most people carry two EpiPens on them at a time because one dose of epinephrine may not be enough to open a person’s airways during anaphylactic shock). What this means for a serious allergy sufferer is that they must take their allergies more seriously than they ever have before. But, what can an allergy sufferer do when the people around them refuse to take their allergy seriously? The second part of this story is one that this particular friend told me herself about 2 separate encounters that she had while flying out of state.

Her first encounter was on her way out of state. As she was boarding the airplane, she let one of the flight attendants know that she had a severe nut allergy and that simply being in the presence of any kind of nut could set off a reaction. The flight attendant stated that almonds were to be served as the in-flight snack and that there was nothing that they could do to change that. So, my friend loaded up on Benadryl and prayed. Thankfully, nothing happened.

On her flight home, she again informed a flight attendant – this one much more helpful than the first one – that she had a nut allergy. She was told by this particular flight attendant that snacks other than nuts were available and that they would serve those instead of the almonds. Unfortunately, there are no regulations as to the snacks that passengers can bring onto the airplanes for themselves, and so sometime after take off the passenger directly in front of my friend opened a bag of shelled peanuts – peanuts being the most dangerous allergen for this particular person – and started cracking them open. My friend and her sister moved quickly to get a flight attendant to change their seats and again my friend loaded up on Benadryl and her sister wrapped her face in a scarf, to keep her from breathing in any of the dust that might be floating backward to her through the stale cabin air. Seats were changed, prayers were answered and nothing bad happened. But this was a very serious close call.

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Now, you might be saying to yourself (or to me through your computer screen) that none of these incidents was actually an act of bullying. (Well, actually the incident with the first unhelpful flight attendant was really bordering on bullying.) However, these were all stories of simple acts of thoughtlessness that could have ended a person’s life. Consider that for a moment.

And now, consider that approximately 1 in 13 children in America have food allergies and that approximately one-third of those children report having been harassed solely on the basis of their allergy. You can type “food allergy bullying” into Google and read story after story of children with food allergies not only being made fun of, but actually being threatened and sometimes physically attacked with the foods that have the potential to end their lives. One New York Times article cites 6 different incidents of children who have been purposely threatened and attacked with allergens. One of the mothers of the children featured in this article stated that though children may think that they are just playing pranks on people with food allergies, they are actually threatening the allergy sufferers with deadly weapons. In one incident a 14-year-old girl who was hi-fived by a classmate who had smeared pineapple juice on her hand was hospitalized. According to this article in the Washington Post which covered the story, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/education/wp/2018/01/26/3-teens-charged-with-knowingly-exposing-allergic-classmate-to-pineapple-she-was-hospitalized/ the girl’s allergy to pineapple was well-known to her classmates and the hi-five was intended to cause an allergic reaction. The classmate who intentionally caused the reaction has been charged with felony aggravated assault in juvenile court.

Even if the pranks don’t end in hospitalization or a severe reaction, the psychological toll that this kind of bullying has on children can be overwhelming. Another one of the heart-breaking stories from the above-mentioned Times article cites an incident where a child was taunted at lunch by his friends with a peanut butter sandwich. These so-called friends waved the sandwich and said “Let’s see if he dies.” Other children have had peanut butter or dairy products smeared on them. Many children who have food allergies dread school and some of them fake illness to avoid going to school at all. As a parent of a young child, I cried reading some of these stories. I felt immensely grateful that my daughter hasn’t shown any signs of food allergies. It also made me wonder what my family can do right now to make our community – the greater Columbia area – a more compassionate and safer place for those with severe food allergies. I didn’t have to search very long before I found the answer.

First of all, we can become more thoughtful people. Being thoughtful means we need to consider the snacks that we choose to eat and feed our children in public. There are so many alternatives to allergy-trigger foods out there. When I was diagnosed with celiac disease, the Enjoy Life brand of foods became a lifesaver to me – and it might be a lifesaver to someone with a food allergy. Enjoy Life produces cookies, crackers, chocolate bars, snack bars, etc. that are free of the all of the most common food allergies – eggs, dairy, wheat, soy, nuts, etc. Need to know what to bring to your child’s class party? How about some Enjoy Life cookies? They are delicious and safe. I’ve fed them to my picky eater ever since that peanut butter sandwich mistake in the church nursery. She absolutely loves them. I also started giving HRH some Enjoy Life Sunbutter Snack bars. They are perfect for when you’re in a hurry and you want to give your child something at least semi-healthy to eat that is also safe for everyone around her. They taste like peanut butter but are made from sunflower seed butter which is allergy friendly. Actually, I love those snack bars. Once I ate all of my kid’s snack bars and felt terrible about it, so I had to go out and buy more.

And, we can teach our kids to Be a PAL. The Be a PAL campaign (the PAL stands for Protect a Life) is part of a wider anti-bullying campaign. It aims to educate both children and parents about the dangers of food allergies and it encourages children to help protect and stand up for children that they know might be bullied because of their allergies. You can read more about the Be a PAL campaign and also find free printables and other resources here: https://www.foodallergy.org/education-awareness/be-a-pal

While the Be a PAL campaign is targeted at younger children, the No Appetite for Bullying campaign is for children 13 or older, parents and also teachers and administrators. You can learn more about this campaign here: http://www.noappetiteforbullying.com/

No Appetite for Bullying encourages you to download their badge and share it on your social media to show your support for those with food allergies. You can find it on their website or right here:

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Columbia, SC is a city known for hospitality, and I think that makes this a great place to champion this cause. So, this school year, let’s educate ourselves, our teachers, school administrators and those in our community about the seriousness of food allergies and let’s work together to make Columbia a safe and friendly place for all people. What do you say?