Writing about food allergies from a pediatric allergist's perspective

Food Allergy Advocacy: No Voice is Too Small

AllergyHome proudly introduces our guest contributor, Lauren Maunus.   Lauren is currently a junior in high school and a powerful voice in the food allergy community. She is an advocate for school food allergy and nutrition management and has worked extensively to effect a change in national school lunch policy.   Thank you Lauren, for joining us.

Written by Lauren Maunus

“I’ve learned from first-hand experience that everyone’s story matters; no voice is too small.”

me and rachelI share a common bond with you.  I love someone with a food allergy.   Just shy of her 2nd birthday, my younger sister Rachel ate a small bite of a cashew and experienced a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction.

Our family dynamic changed instantly.  Rachel’s safety became our first priority.  We had to read every label of every bite of food that passed her lips and manage her food allergies in all situations, including school. At the beginning of each school year, my mother traveled to the food service department and read the labels for all the items Rachel selected for lunch, until one day, she joined Rachel for lunch, and the pizza had been replaced by another pizza product.  That innocent substitution was the last time Rachel purchased school lunch.   Our family lives by a very simple rule:  if there is no label Rachel does not eat it…no exceptions!

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) mandates that the labels of foods that contain major food allergens declare the allergen in plain language; however, many public school cafeterias do not have food ingredients readily available for students or their families.

I have always been a big sister advocate at birthday parties, restaurants, and school, and as I matured, so did my voice.   As a Freshman I joined Youth in Government Club and was tasked to write a piece of legislation for a youth assembly; there was no doubt in my mind that the bill would serve as a vehicle to express my passion for students with food allergy.  I drafted legislation that required the identification of the top eight allergens and nutrition information on all food offered in public school cafeterias.  After being awarded best bill in the House, I realized that I had the potential to make a change.  This critical information empowers students, families and nutritional services to make educated choices in selecting meals.

I spent countless nights working at the computer, leading conference calls from my school’s guidance office during my lunch, and traveling to meetings before, during, and after school.  I began a grassroots campaign, working with my school district’s nutritional director and addressing the local chamber of commerce and school board.

business cardsNext, I convinced my school board to launch a pilot in my home school district comprised of 18,000 students.  After one month the movement gained incredible support and energy.   State legislators came on board and invited me to address our tri-county legislative delegation.   With the hundreds of business cards I gathered, I formed a coalition of state-wide and national organizations with similar missions, members of the medical and education communities, and legislators.

I served as a Senate Page in Tallahassee, where I lobbied the President of the Senate, the Commissioner of Agriculture, and the Governor.   I literally ran across the capitol complex barefoot; heels are a definite obstacle to lobbying.   I had to demonstrate how my idea was operationally feasible in a state with 67 school districts with a wide range of budgets and resources.

The Florida Senate issued a Proclamation in support of National Food Allergy Awareness Week and the Department of Agriculture introduced guidelines that emphasize food allergy education and provide allergen and nutrition information, benefiting Florida’s 3 million students.  Florida is scheduled to launch a robust training program for all sponsors beginning January 1, 2014.  The state will have a training coordinator, in-person hands-on training, and on-line job specific training modules addressing safe food handling and storage.  The state plans to provide in-depth food allergy educational materials and webinars for the entire school community and families.

My goal is to expand upon Florida’s success as a model for the nation.   I am currently working with members of Congress and Senators to improve best practices for the management of students suffering from food allergy.  We are collaborating with federal agencies such as the USDA, FDA, and the CDC.  I recently had the privilege to lobby on Capitol Hill and discuss national school nutrition policy.  I met with numerous politicians who envisioned identification of allergens and nutrition as an opportunity to help all students, including those with food allergy, obesity, and other diet related illnesses.

IMG959300Last month I had the opportunity to share my advocacy initiative in a TEDx Talk “The Persuasive Power of Passion: From Love to Legislation”   http://new.livestream.com/tedx/youthmiami2013/videos/35799483 

Advocating on behalf of Rachel has been a formative part of my life.  Throughout the past three years, I’ve learned from first-hand experience that everyone’s story matters; no voice is too small.  We can use our skills, motivation, and persistence to effect a change.  What started as a labor of love developed into a federal initiative, fueled by my steadfast determination to keep all students like Rachel safe at school.

Steny HoyerLauren Maunus is a junior in the International Baccalaureate program at South Fork High School in Martin County, Florida.  She is an advocate for school food allergy and nutrition management and has worked extensively to effect a change in national school lunch policy.  Lauren is passionate about human rights and is interested in pursuing study in International Relations.  She coordinates volunteers at a soup kitchen and loves to cook, travel, and play tennis.   

1 Comment
  1. I so needed to read this post! It gives me hope.

    I am, however, really challenged by my understanding of local government. A clever bill was drafted, but was it passed? I see that a proclamation was made and guidelines were made,but are these voluntary or are they mandates?

    I’m dealing the same issues with our schools and wish I was half as clever as Lauren. I just think my child could eat at the school if we had up to date labeling. She wants a hot meal from time to time… is that so wrong? The school says they are unwilling to take on the liability of stating that they have up to date labeling. I think they are discriminating against my 504 child. What do you think?

    I also brought up training to prevent cross contamination and they say, “We showed everyone how to use an epipen.” Good…. but not good enough. Can we avoid having to use an epipen? This year I’ve seen two 6 year olds who were allergic to peanut butter compromised and humiliated over their allergies. I’ve only eaten there 8 times and wonder what else has happened. They do insist they are better than other school districts. I hope not.

    I can see that change in our school district and possible the state of Texas will not happen without someone special like Lauren. I am confident that the work she does in Florida will influence other states as well. Super excited about these developments… and to find out I’m not crazy for wanting the same things in our schools.

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