Food Allergy Bullying: Stakes Are High, As I Found Out

in College Corner, Your Stories
Published: January 9, 2014

Charlotte Jude Schwartz took a stand against food allergy bullying.Charlotte-Jude Schwartz
From cyberspace to the schoolyard, bullying can occur anywhere in any shape or form. I know, because it happened to me.

One warm afternoon at lunch, I decided to eat with my group of friends outside in the sunshine away from the (nut-free) cafeteria. I trailed off from my backpack – which contained my lunchbox – for mere minutes, taking care to zip it up before going, and even then not drifting very far. I talked with my friends, laughed, and walked the asphalt track. I then circled back to my backpack – and saw my lunchbox out on the table.

Wait a sec. Hadn’t I closed it before walking off? The bell rang, and I figured my recollection was foggy and didn’t think much of it. I shoved the lunchbox back into my backpack, and the rest of my day went smoothly. I had my afternoon classes; the usual.

Back home, I handed off my lunchbox to my mom, as I do daily. She’ll clean it out and prepare for the next school lunch. Suddenly, she uttered a sound in a concerned voice. She looked spooked, and together we saw that there was a crumbled-up cookie with chunks of chocolate spread all inside my lunchbox. I was astonished, scared – and baffled.

My mom asked me to carefully recall the day: when had I been separated from my lunchbox? Didn’t I keep it with me? I promised her again and again that I hadn’t eaten or been offered food by anyone. She then gave the mystery cookie a taste test and confirmed: it was “salty and nutty”. I’m allergic to peanuts and tree nuts.

Taking Action Against Food Allergy Bullying

We made a plan: my mother explained that she and I were going to talk to my principal and security team at my school to figure out what happened and who the culprit was. We brought the lunchbox with us. At my school, there are security cameras throughout the hallways and in the yard. But outside, the multiple cameras pan back and forth which means it takes additional time to look through the time codes to see everything.

But actually, I had an idea about someone who had been bothering me and my friends the day before. Although it was difficult, I spoke up and shared the information with my mom and the school staff. My mother explained to me that this was a crime. She told me that whoever was responsible for this “prank” could have poisoned me, potentially making me go into anaphylactic shock. The police could be called and it could be formally investigated. I did not realize this until she told me.

My close friends rallied around me and I leaned on them for support. My school took the incident very seriously and performed a rigorous investigation, and even put up food allergy bullying posters everywhere with the direct threat: “Food allergies can be life-threatening, so putting allergens near someone allergic on purpose is a crime, and punishable.”

My school is has a strict privacy policy for handling circumstances like this but, rest assured, they came up with an inventive strategy to catch the culprit. One of the security team’s suggestions was to “stage” my lunchbox again a few days later under surveillance, and see if there was a repeat. Another good idea was to check out some of the students’ Instagram and Facebook pages to see if there was online chatter.

In the end, the school took a direct route and interviewed the students who were at the tables closest to mine, and a few people in particular, based on my hunches. We did come to a very quiet – and satisfying – conclusion with the student responsible, who agreed that it had been a mistake and a terrible prank that could have had dire consequences. The school nurse also put together a plan for a school assembly focusing on food allergy bullying.

From then on, my circle kept watch over me at lunch, and one buddy even reprimanded me: “Don’t leave your lunchbox anywhere again!” I haven’t, I promise.

I know how lucky I was that nothing worse happened. Although the cookie had been crumbled all over my (until that point) perfect lunchbox, I hadn’t come into direct contact with it. My mother also has food allergies and has taught me since childhood how to be very careful.

Refusing to be Silenced

With me going off to high school next year, my mom always brags about how much of a model daughter I’ve grown up to be, how responsible I am with my allergy, and how I’ve managed it. But let’s face it: not being able to eat a peanut butter cup, or order a Frappuccino with hazelnuts in it or, heck, even eat something without reading the label first is not an easy task. I manage it, though. I speak up, and unfortunately in this case, I was targeted for doing so.

But I will not be silenced. Food allergies are not funny, nor are they something to toy around with. This sort of allergy abuse is a crime.

Despite the challenges, I can’t say that my allergy has gotten me nowhere. My favorite band, Sleeping with Sirens, saw me on a Discovery Channel documentary talking about living with my allergies and invited me as a VIP guest to their concert; they even signed my EpiPen bag.

Plus, I have amazing friends who are very supportive and even read their own food labels before they bring food to school, or before we hang out. So when I told them about me getting bullied and nearly poisoned by someone, they supported and protected me.

I’ve learned that the key is to not feel small and intimidated, but strong and unbreakable. After all, everyone has their own version of “kryptonite”, so why let the bullies weaken your spirit? They only made me stronger, and gave me a louder voice. You are all hearing it right now.

Charlotte Jude Schwartz is a student in San Francisco and a food allergy advocate.

Food Allergy Bullying on the Rise