Food bullying takes on many forms, from being excluded to birthday parties and social events, to being spat on or threatened to be spat on after eating the specific food that the victimised child is allergic to.

According to a study by the Mount Sinai Medical Center in the US, nearly half of kids with food allergies say they’ve been bullied. A third of their study’s sample reported that the bullying was food-related.

The American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology also did a study about food bullying, and came to some shocking findings:

  • 86% of patients in the study  reported verbal bullying;
  • 82% reported that food bullying was from their class mates;
  • 21% were TEACHERS or school staff;
  • 57% were touched or threatened with the food they are allergic to.
What prompts bullying?

We all are naturally programmed to distrust “the other”. In ancient times, this was an excellent survival strategy when our prehistoric ancestors only had their tribes to protect them. And during these times, “the other” had the potential to prompt life-threatening situations. As a result, it was ingrained in the deepest recesses of our minds to avoid or overpower anyone who is different.

This is a universal principle that is evident in many species. In an interesting blog post about bullying, The Scientific American refers to research on primates to illustrate the causes and reasons for bullying:

Bullying-like behaviours are used to enhance an individual or coalition’s competitive ability or to coerce others into changing their behaviour to conform to the rest of the community. Bullying-like behaviours provide the individuals who engage in them with advantages over their targets, through enhanced status or access to resources, or both. If this sounds familiar, it’s because humans use bullying behaviours to achieve the same ends.

Bullying must be dealt with a solid plan of action. It can lead to significant social and mental health problems for the victims. It’s also important to remember that children might not always admit to being bullied for fear of victimisation, and parents need to be aware and look out for signs of it in their children. Feelings of sadness, depression and embarrassment accompany these children and often they do not have the tools to cope with the emotional consequences of being bullied.

But when a child is being food bullied, the response needs to be swift and decisive, as a serious food allergy is no laughing matter. In a school setting, where a child with a severe allergy can be perceived as “different”, naïve teasing can have dire consequences for all children involved.

The need for schools and parents to act

All schools should have a bullying policy in place, and food bullying should be clearly stipulated in these policies. Its life-threatening nature cannot be ignored.

At home, we can take a couple of steps back and start teaching our children kindness and tolerance to “the other”. In doing so, we can begin a process of inclusion rather than a punitive endpoint. If we all understand the real dangers of food allergies as well as the impact this has on those around us, we will encourage and promote empathy rather than predatory behaviour.

In conclusion

Food allergies can become a fantastic opportunity to teach our children empathy for others. Whether your child is allergic or non-allergic, talking about- and understanding bullying has the potential to afford all children the right to a safe learning environment. Let’s support one another and try to make a positive difference!

© 2018 | Dr Marinda McDonald | Practice number 0015393 | All rights reserved

The purpose of this article is to raise awareness of allergies and the treatment options that are available for it. This article should by no means be used, or viewed, as a primary source for medical advice – please arrange for a personal consultation with your medical practitioner before taking any decisions that could affect the wellbeing of you or your loved ones. Read our medical disclaimer for more information


Marinda McDonald

Dr Marinda McDonald has offered specialised treatments for allergies for most of her professional career. Read more about her on the home page of this website (allergydoc.co.za).