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Dimensions of Health Allergic, ostracized and afraid

Beating the stigma of the ‘peanut-free table’

Children can be cruel. Just ask anyone with a life-threatening food allergy who’s ever been teased, taunted – or worse – by their peers.

Did You Know? Tap to expand
Black children have significantly higher rates of shellfish and fish allergies, and higher odds of wheat allergy, than white children. Source: Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice

Katherine Schug recalled an incident during her freshman year of high school in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. It involved a male classmate and cheddar-cheese Goldfish snacks. 

“He knew I was allergic to it because my teacher would constantly tell him not to bring it,” said Schug. “He would put it on my desk and try to observe to see if I’d have an allergic reaction while his friend would record it (using his smartphone) to see, like, what I would say, what I would do.” 

Other times, Schug was teased because of her asthma and eczema. 

The junior at Rutgers University has been allergic to dairy, eggs, peanuts and tree nuts since birth. But the teasing, the bullying and the constant inconsideration, she said, was a really rough way to go through her childhood.

Schug’s experiences are not unusual. A 2020 study by the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology found that nearly 20% of school-aged children were bullied for food allergies. 

And this kind of bullying is not new. A 2010 study by doctors at Mount Sinai Medical Center found that among children older than 5 who have food allergies, 35% experienced bullying, teasing or harassment, and 86% were harassed more than once. 

The Mount Sinai study also reported that it’s not just children who are the perpetrators: More than 20% reported that adults in the school community also teased and harassed children with food allergies. 

Schug recounted her feelings about being ostracized in middle school. “I remember they had this separate table for people with intolerances,” she said. “I felt isolated and really, really alone because I was the only one there while all of my friends were chatting and having conversations at another table. I was very shy back then.”

Michael Rosenbloom, who grew up outside of Boston, was spared the bullying. But like Schug, he felt ostracized because of his food allergies. 

Rosenbloom’s mother, Jessica, knew that he had experienced anaphylaxis when he was 3, so she persuaded school administrators and parents to create a safe solution for her son to share a lunch table with his friends. It made all the difference. 

In a high school essay, Rosenbloom reflected on life with food allergies. “Escaping from the isolation of the peanut-free table and the brand of being ‘the kids with allergies’ really buoyed me,” he wrote. “Ever since I had that experience, I have been sensitive and noticed when other students seem alone or isolated and I make sure to try to include them or sit with them. I understand all too well what it means to be left out.”

Schug’s mother likewise recognized her child’s isolation. In April 2012, she took her then-12-year-old daughter to a conference hosted by Food Allergy Research and Education, an advocacy and research organization.  

The food allergy organization’s Annual Teen Summit includes children and their parents, who often also need a supportive community. The 2020 study by the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology reported that nearly one in five parents/guardians of allergy sufferers, ages 4 to 17, were bullied and teased by other adults. 

At one of the summits, with workshops called “Making the Jump: Middle School to High School” and “Anaphylactic Emergency: Teaching Adolescents Preparedness,” Schug remembered hearing Kyle Dine, who uses music to spread awareness about living with severe food allergies. 

Schug had found her people. “Some of them had a long list of how many allergies they had, and I was just like, ‘Wow, you know, there’s other people like me. This is amazing.’”  

That first conference launched Schug’s journey as a food-allergy activist and the creation of the website Teen FAAB – Food Allergy & Anti-Bullying. Since Schug’s early efforts, other national anti-bullying efforts have been launched, including “No Appetite for Bullying” in 2017, and the Contains: Courage Campaign in 2019.

A few years later at another summit conference, Schug spoke about bullying when a boy approached her to share his harrowing story of being bullied on the school bus, repeatedly. The children threw peanuts at him, at one point causing a severe reaction.

“That was one of the stories that (convinced me) that I needed to do something about it,” said Schug. “I need to help other people like this.” 

During her sophomore year, Schug developed a TEDx Talks called “Dare to Be Different” that she hoped would address the shame that she heard expressed by her fellow food-allergic peers. 

Schug thinks several factors contribute to the teasing and bullying behavior, starting with a lack of understanding. 

“A lot of people think that once you have an allergic reaction, your stomach’s going to hurt and you might feel a little sick for a while, but it’s all right,” she said. “It’s, ‘you’re overreacting, you’re a picky eater.’ A lot of people just perceive (food-allergic people) as fake.”

Schug also thinks children with food allergies are bullied because they are seen as weak and nerdy, a stereotype illustrated on TV shows, such as the sitcom “Jessie,” or in some Hollywood films, such as “Peter Rabbit,” where the rabbits lob blackberries at the main character and cheer as they successfully trigger anaphylaxis. 

Schug experienced anaphylaxis for the first time during her freshman year at college. She had ordered her usual hamburger, but with one bite, she knew something was wrong. The dining hall had used bread that contained milk powder. 

“I started getting itchy and I started to develop hives,” Schug said. “It was a really, really scary experience because it was the first time I had an allergic reaction where my parents weren’t there.”

In searching for other college students with serious food allergies, Schug discovered another gap that she could fill. In October 2020, she launched The Alan (Allergy Life Alliance Network) App – described as an “all-in-one food allergy pocket guide.”

Schug thought about developing an app years ago. She knew she needed to connect with her peers; hence, she planned to include a chat feature that is divided by age group.

It’s nice because we’ve actually had a lot of conversations on the app,” Schug said. “We bond over things that happen, over college, all that kind of stuff, which is great.” 

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Freelance writer & audio producer

Rachel Rock

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Episode Allergic, ostracized and afraid