Challenging ignorance of allergies

Food-sharing is a human universal, including people with food allergies. For us, these rituals can even have the opposite effect of their community-building intentions. Choosing between physical safety and social inclusion is alienating.

It also makes many events inaccessible. Your community may have food-sharing standards such as labeling ingredients and letting folks with allergies go first at buffets–and both are welcome and helpful norms to maintain. But acknowledging allergy-free privilege means more than making food-sharing accessible. It means accepting the collective responsibility to make it more socially inclusive.

It wasn’t long ago that I came to understand the issues associated with food allergies. After catching the H1N1 virus in 2009, I developed a set of troubling symptoms, at one point losing almost 15 pounds over 6 weeks. For a while, I dismissed it as still recovering from the flu. But six months later, this explanation didn’t hold up. Intuition told me it had to do with the food I was eating, but what? After eliminating a variety of potential triggers from my diet, the culprit was identified: gluten.

At first, a gluten free diet seemed extreme and unnecessary. For a few weeks, I experimented with a low gluten diet, which failed to provide relief. I learned the hard way that my body couldn’t handle exceptions, even small ones. Once I was fully gluten free, all my digestive issues went away, my joints stopped aching, and the fog my brain had been in for so long finally lifted. Surprisingly, after a few months, issues I previously thought were genetic, like my chronic insomnia and thin brittle nails, started resolving as well.

As much as I appreciated discovering my body’s unexplored healing capacities in exchange for removing bagels, beer, and baklava from my life, I lamented learning how much more I was giving up than food. Favorite rad traditions like Food Not Bombs became inaccessible. So called ‘community-building’ potlucks demonstrated how low of a priority my community placed on including folks with allergies.

Answering a barrage of questions about why we’re not eating this or drinking that at every event where food is shared often makes it easier to avoid those events altogether. “Wow it must suck to have an allergy!” and “It’s a good thing you brought that trail mix, we wouldn’t want you to starve!” are not inclusive things to say to someone who’s unable to partake in your community’s traditions. What differs between a movement that wants to be inclusive and one that doesn’t is whose responsibility it is to accommodate.

At a recent potluck while I was watching others load their plates with a delicious-looking feast, I considered tracking down the creator of a salad, the only dish that might be safe other than the one I’d brought. I wasn’t looking forward to asking detailed questions that might seem impolite to someone I’d only just met–“did you use a fresh cutting board? Were there crumbs on the counter?” After a couple minutes mentally rehearsing a disarmingly apologetic way to ask, I noticed someone using the serving fork from the pasta next door for the veggies I’d had my eye on.

It’s neither possible nor necessary for every potluck dish to accommodate everyone, but it’s important to be aware that we have to deal with the risk of illness. More important than a list of food-prep rules to follow, is awareness of potential for exclusion and alienation. With an analysis of not just physical access, but of social inclusion, any community intending to feed all its members will discover the food-prep technicalities that it needs to do so.

At a recent action, the meal offered contained ingredients I am allergic to. An organizer approached me in advance about delivery options they could comp. I didn’t have to leave the group to get my dinner, nor pay extra for it! I was fed, but more importantly I knew the organizers had inclusion in their list of priorities.
Allyship With Folks With Allergies

Researching allergies is a good first step, but it’s important to communicate personally with us, as different people with the same allergy may be more or less sensitive to the allergen, or have different reactions. Many people have multiple allergies and/or intolerances.

Acknowledge that allergies differ from voluntary food restrictions, like vegetarian or veganism. Lacking the autonomy to select our food restrictions, our constant vigilance is never a choice. If the meat chili spoon gets into the vegetarian chili, few (if any) vegetarians would be harmed, if they even noticed. Folks with allergies would find out by getting sick.

Don’t take it personally if we decline to eat something even if you spent a bunch of time and effort making it in what you thought was a way we could eat it.

Arguing is a form of bullying. Trust what we tell you about our needs, even if it seems unusual or contradicts what you think you know.

Accountability means speaking up if you discover that something’s become accidentally contaminated. Admitting it was messed up is uncomfortable. But it’s far worse to poison someone by keeping silent. It’s better to miss out on a meal than spend days or weeks suffering from it.

Being an ally in the struggle against ableism means taking responsibility for privilege you have by fighting the exclusion of people with different abilities.

Food allergies and intolerances aren’t especially rare, and recent research indicates that they’re becoming even more common. I am grateful to encounter a greater number of more understanding people as awareness increases surrounding this important issue. Together we can help make it easier to heal ourselves, and support each other while doing so.