Picture this - you’re in class when you hear the insidious sound of someone slowly unzipping their lunchbox. Uh oh, a mixture of panic and annoyance shoots through you as you realize the sandwich the student has started to discreetly eat contains your allergens. When the teacher finally confronts the student about it, they mumble an excuse about missing lunch last period. The teacher waves it off, allowing them to continue with their meal, but you’re left in a state of frozen anxiety.
Has this ever happened to you? Too often food is brought into the classroom at the risk of food allergic students, the desire to snack triumphing over mindfulness of others’ allergies. The classroom should be a safe place, but learning can be difficult when one is trying to avoid having an allergic reaction. Speaking up is crucial to ensuring your comfort and safety in the classroom.
In order to minimize surprise encounters with allergens, it's important to make a plan with your teacher. At the beginning of the year, alert your teacher of your food allergies and go over your 504 plan if you have one. Work with your teacher to come up with a classroom food policy, if they don’t already have one (for example, prohibiting students from eating in class/bringing specific allergens into the classroom, or enforcing hand sanitizing after eating to limit cross-contact on shared surfaces). Having open communication with your teacher builds a strong foundation for trust and limits the chances you will be caught off guard with food in the classroom.
Having a strong game plan is important, but what happens when teachers do little to enforce the food policy, don’t call students out for eating in class, or even bring food with your allergens in the classroom themselves? It can be extremely frustrating when teachers take a cavalier attitude towards this disease, however this is a great opportunity for you to educate them on the severity of food allergies and the implications that it has on you as a student. For example, if the teacher brings in candy with your allergens in it, let them know that that makes you uncomfortable (or educate them on airborne reactions if that applies to you), and request that it is not passed out in class. Standing up to a teacher can be intimidating, but ultimately their job is to keep you safe, so you need to let them know what they can do to better support you in the classroom.
The same goes for verbal food allergy bullying, or when a teacher makes an insensitive “joke” about food allergies that is hurtful or singles you out in a negative way. You may be familiar with the feeling of frustration, disbelief and wanting to crawl into a hole when your teacher tells the whole class that you’re the reason they couldn’t have a pizza party. It’s already hard enough having food allergies without a teacher singling you out. If something a teacher said regarding food allergies is threatening or harmful, singles you out in a negative way, or just makes you uncomfortable, let them know, because it’s your job to stand up for yourself.
I know it can be hard, and painfully awkward to call out a teacher, but as long as you do it respectfully and with empathy, they will admire you for standing up for yourself. Emails are a great place to start: drafting a carefully worded email will allow you to choose exactly what you want to say, ensuring that your message comes across as clearly as possible. Parents are a great source for proofreading, but keep in mind words are a thousand times more impactful coming from you, a student, rather than your parents. Teachers value your opinion as a young person, and it shows maturity and responsibility if you take the steps to reach out to them yourself (they know it takes courage).
If it is a more serious case of food allergy bullying, where you feel you are being targeted, or a teacher does something that puts your health and safety at risk, it is best to get another trusted adult, such a parent or a principal, involved.
Even if you’re over the offense, it's important to call out the behavior so that they may move forward with a more sensitive attitude towards the subject in the future. When you stand up to a teacher, not only are you advocating for yourself, but you are advocating for thousands of other individuals with food allergies, by spreading awareness in the classroom. Students follow their teacher’s example, so if your teacher treats food allergies seriously, then it's likely that the students will also adopt a more respectful attitude towards food allergies, so that they may pause and ponder the implications of food in the classroom before pulling out a sandwich.
It's important to stand up for yourself, however in situations where you feel your health and safety may be at risk, remove yourself from that environment and seek advice from a medical professional. Additionally, what might be an appropriate classroom food policy for one individual might not be the safest for another person. It’s important to talk to your allergist about what is most safe for you, depending on your allergies and comfort level.