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School and Allergies, Asthma

Florida’s Super Teen Allergy Lobbyist

super-sisterFor Rachel Maunus, a 13-year-old who lives with a life-threatening tree nut allergy, the school cafeteria can be a scary place – so her older sister decided to do something about that. Since 2011, Lauren Maunus, 15, has been spearheading an initiative designed to revolutionize food allergy awareness in Florida schools.

“I’m really motivated because of Rachel,” says Lauren, whose family lives in Palm City, Fla. “It’s incredible to see how much my mom and I have been able to accomplish.”

Lauren didn’t think it was right that her sister couldn’t eat the food at the school cafeteria, since she had no idea what ingredients were used. True, their mom Debbie could go down to the county offices and flip through a massive ingredient binder, but there was no way to know if it was kept up to date.

That’s when Lauren decided to draft a bill for her youth in government club. Her bill stipulated that schools be required to post Top 8 allergen and ingredient information at the point of sale in school cafeterias. When the bill took the top prize at a mock state assembly, Lauren and Debbie decided to pursue it further, seeking to overhaul food allergy education and awareness in Florida schools.

Lauren has met with food services directors of Florida schools, lobbied politicians, attended county meetings and worked with legislative aides to help the issue gain prominence. In April, Lauren spent a week in Florida’s capital, Tallahassee, meeting government officials, including Governor Rick Scott.

Florida had been lagging behind other states when it came to allergy awareness. Now Lauren’s lobbying has led to new state guidelines designed to educate school staff – from the cafeteria worker to the teacher – on everything from symptoms to emergency procedures to food handling to prevent cross-contamination in the cafeteria kitchen. Working with a coalition of support organizations as well as the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (which has jurisdiction over the School Lunch Program), the mother-daughter duo have caused a ripple throughout the state.

“We love working with Debbie and Lauren. They have definitely raised the profile of this issue, and we’re happy to be on their team,” says Robin Safley, director of food, nutrition and wellness at Agriculture and Consumer Services. Safley says the department has a three-phase plan to implement these guidelines.

Phase one, which began in spring, involves food allergy education materials (such as presentations and brochures) being made available to the public on the department’s website (see Freshforfloridakids.com).

Next: Allergens Online at the Cafeteria?

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