At CUSD, kids with food allergies can enjoy a cafeteria lunch

At CUSD, kids with food allergies can enjoy a cafeteria lunch

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CHANDLER, Ariz. -

There are multiple forms of bullying kids and teens deal with, and parents worry about. Bullying in school, on social media, at work -- but there's also the cafeteria.

It's not a new phenomenon but concern over food allergy bullying is growing and it's happening here in the valley.

One district has already taken a stand against it.

Every other Friday afternoon 10-year-old Leah Detemple eats her favorite lunch at the Hayley Elementary School cafeteria -- tacos.

Fifth grader Leah loves lunchtime and catching up on girl talk. But it wasn't always this much fun.

"People would try to put food in my face to see, oh what will happen if you eat this, oh what will happen if you eat that and they would throw their food into my food," says Leah.

Leah was born with celiac disease, a condition that damages the lining of the small intestine. Basically that means she is highly allergic to wheat, rye and barley.

Since kindergarten, classmates, even her friends, have taunted and bullied Leah during lunch because of the foods she can't eat.

"It would make me real sad cause they're my friends and they were always there for me and now they were throwing food in my food."

A study published in the journal "Pediatrics" shows that about one-third of kids with food allergies are bullied by other kids because of their allergies. In 10 percent of the cases the victim is being bullied by a teacher.

"What they said is its teasing about the food allergy, threatening with the food, threatening to make you eat it, confronting you with the food -- you can't eat this and pushing that into your face," says Brad Snyder, Stop Bullying AZ.

Brad Snyder is a senior policy advisor for "Stop Bullying AZ," a nonprofit that works to stop all forms of bullying. He says bullying is characterized by three things -- an imbalance of power -- it's a repeated act -- and it's intentional.

"It might be a bigger problem here in Arizona for a couple of reasons. One is that we've kind of lacked leadership from our legislature about what to do about it in schools and we have so many school districts that are struggling with it on their own."

Teasing, pushing, what are considered normal acts of bullying carry definite consequences and affect how the victim feels about school and relationships.

But experts and parents worry food allergy bullying is much worse -- waving a peanut butter sandwich in the face of a child with a severe peanut allergy, for example, could be deadly.

"There are plenty of victims of food allergy bullying that have definitely felt that their life was threatened, they felt if he actually does force me to eat this peanut butter I can be in real danger here."

"Initially when she has a reaction to gluten it can vary from very violent. She can be vomiting, until she gets severely dehydrated, she ends up in the ER," says Debbie Detemple, Leah's mom.

Debbie Detemple packed her daughter's lunches daily to ensure she ate a healthy and most importantly safe meal when she wasn't around to watch over her. It wasn't until she learned about the Chandler School District's Nutrition Program that she let Leah purchase lunch at school.

"Once they started eating in the cafeteria and they set up this menu for her that does mimic the menu that the other kids can have, the bullying ceased."

"We create all of the menus, create all of the recipes, we create special diets for the kids, we supervise the staff and we make sure we are serving healthy safe nutritious food to all 42,000 kids that we have in the district," says Wesley Delbridge, registered dietician and food nutrition supervisor for the Chandler Unified School District.

Delbridge has parents and the child's physician fill out this form, and he essentially creates a menu that meets the child's needs.

It's the only district in the state that does this and there's no extra fee.

Menus are posted online and in a mobile app. All allergens are listed, and no matter how extreme the allergy or condition, every student stands in line to get their meal.

"As you know kids can be made fun of for almost anything. If anybody is different in any sort of way they might get made fun of so what our goal is to serve them similar items on the same tray, have them come through the same line and they don't get identified as having a special diet and or a special meal or special needs in any sort of way."

"Everyone is the same even if like they are allergic to something, they still want to be like you and it's not making it easy when you're putting stuff in their face," says Leah.

So far, fifth grade has been good to Leah. She's involved with student council, drama, running club and with help from the CUSD nutrition program, instead of worrying about being different and about being bullied, she's enjoying herself much more.

The Chandler School District provides special lunches for hundreds of kids within the district. Hundreds more benefit because their parents are able to manage their allergies with the online menu.

By law, all school districts are required to provide kids with nutritional needs assistance, but most districts will contract out a dietician to do so.

Online: stopbullyingaz.org 

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