By Guest Blogger Marybeth Barrett

The cheese touch. It’s not just a game.

As the mother of a son who has severe food allergies,I felt so sad, scared and outraged when I read the article about the boy who died when a fellow classmate put a piece of cheese down his shirt. He didn’t even eat the cheese, it was just via contact. You can read more about the tragic story here. His name was Karan and he had several severe food allergies, dairy being one of them.  More and more kids today are being diagnosed with food allergies, but it seems like no one talks about it unless you are personally affected by it. Six million kids are diagnosed with food allergies. They say two in every classroom. Many people, especially kids, just don’t understand how serious a food allergy can be. Kids find it funny and often taunt or bully those with food allergies, as in the case of Karan. Yes, cheese can be a deadly weapon and they need to know it isn’t just a game.

Having a child with a severe tree nut and shellfish allergy has gotten a little easier to manage as he has gotten older. He can take responsibility and read labels, ask wait staff how their food is prepared, and notify them of his allergies. But, he still gets bullied now and then.

When my son was maybe 11 or 12 he went to overnight camp. One of his bunkmates thought it would be funny to fill his sleeping bag with pistachios. Real funny. My son had to sleep on top of his sleeping bag, with no covers, for a week because he was too scared to sleep inside his sleeping bag. He told his counselor, but let’s face it, the counselor is just a teenager, and he too did not get the severity of food allergies. I sent my kid to camp with an epi-pen and prayed that his food didn’t get cross contaminated and now I have to add “getting bullied by food” to my list of things to pray for. Angela Fuller wrote a great blog about Being a Friend to a Child with Food Allergies. She states that “Of the food allergic children who reported bullying, 86% experience multiple episodes and 57% report being touched or harassed with the actual allergenic food.”  This is unacceptable. I firmly believe the best way to prevent this is to educate people on the fact that food allergies can be fatal, whether via contact or by consumption.

It isn’t just kids who don’t understand the severity of food allergies either. I remember when my friend’s son ended up in analphylactic shock. The class was having a party and one of the moms insisted on making homemade cupcakes. She promised to follow the list of ingredients to be avoided, due to severe food allergies, so ALL of the kids could enjoy the special treat. Normally, he would have avoided it, but he was led to believe it was safe…so he ate it. After my friend got the call that her son was on the way to the ER because he was having a severe allergic reaction and had to be administered an epi-pen, she called that mom to see what happened. The Mom replied, “Well, I may have used milk.”  What, are you serious?  She chose to use milk even though it was clearly listed as one of the ingredients to avoid! I was so angry.  How could that mother knowingly put a child in harm’s way?  I wonder how she would feel if I said, “Well, I may have let your child play with a loaded gun.” Yes, milk can be a deadly weapon too. Both can lead to a fatal outcome. The only answer to my question, or any sense of reasoning, is that she had a lack of education. Who would purposely let a kid play with a loaded gun anyway?

Now that my son is 15, we have even more to think about. I had to have a talk about kissing. I had to tell him that before kissing, he would need to ask the girl if she had consumed tree nuts or shellfish. Yes, kissing can have deadly consequences as in the case of Michelene Ducre. She died after kissing her boyfriend who had eaten a peanut butter sandwich. It is tragic and something that most of us don’t have to think twice about!

I have witnessed adults expressing their sincere disdain and displeasure when a classroom or airline flight has been deemed a peanut free zone. I get it. I know that if your child only eats a peanut butter sandwich for lunch it is inconvenient and annoying. But, people with food allergies did not ask to be burdened with this lifelong disability. Yes, food allergies are considered a disability. And when facing anyone with a disability, we can only ask for a little compassion and understanding. For some, their allergy is so severe that they need it to be a peanut free zone. Their only other option is to be homeschooled. Is that fair? There are no specialized schools for kids with allergies, so I ask that you have some empathy and help raise awareness on the seriousness of food allergies. Here is another great blog post about Food Allergies and Inclusion at School.

Recently, the movie Peter Rabbit stirred up a lot of controversy. There was one character who was feuding with the rabbits. In one scene, the rabbits launched a blackberry into the characters mouth knowing that he had a food allergy to them. The character fumbled for his epi-pen and then collapsed to the ground. If you don’t have food allergies on your radar screen you either didn’t notice or you may have even laughed, since the purpose of the scene was to entertain. Some people commented on the article and told people to lighten up. Would you take a life or death situation lightly if it were your child? In reality, making light of the situation doesn’t do anyone any good. I will give kudos to Sony, the filmmakers though. They have since written an apology saying they should not have made light of a something as serious as food allergies, even if in a cartoonish matter. It only depicted a lesser known form of bullying…food bullying.

As you can see, I am very passionate about this topic. It is the Mama Bear in me. Yes, some of these are extreme cases, but they are real. My hope in writing this article is to help open up the dialog and talk about it to your children. Next time you are having a family dinner, please bring up the topic of food allergies. Tell them that a food allergy can be a life or death situation, and reference these stories. Please tell them it is never ok to taunt or tease someone with a food allergy. It is never funny. Educate them that someone can have a reaction via contact, it doesn’t just have to be eaten. Know the signs of a severe food allergy reaction:

  • Skin rash, itching, hives
  • Swelling of the lips, tongue or throat
  • Shortness of breath, trouble breathing, wheezing
  • Stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Feeling like something awful is about to happen

If they see someone having a reaction…seek help immediately. Ask if they have food allergies. Give them Benadryl or use an epi-pen if needed and call 911. You may just help save a life by shedding some light on this important topic of conversation! I know I am one of many who would appreciate it.


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