For 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?
The second phase, taking place over the summer of 2013, will see the launch of an online food allergy training course and webinars for school staff, as well as some on-site staff training. Phase three, scheduled for the fall, involves online allergy courses for students training in the food services program at Florida State College at Jacksonville.
Lauren has also led the process of introducing menu software so that school cafeterias can make food allergen information easily accessible online. Her home district of Martin County has begun using the software and Safley has just received approval to investigate a state-wide contract. Safley is enthusiastic about the idea, especially since online information can be managed at a district level to ensure it is kept accurate and up to date.
All this advocacy has built a reputation for the teen, who finds she is often recognized by politicians and aides whom she has never met before. “I go to a meeting and they say ‘Do I know you? I swear I’ve seen you before,’ ” says Lauren with a laugh. While in Talahassee, Lauren was informed that Scott is sending her a special letter of commendation for her advocacy efforts.
Younger sister Rachel couldn’t be prouder: “What Lauren is doing is really amazing. I really appreciate all of the support and love she has given me as a big sister.”
Lauren, whose goal is for food allergy awareness to gain greater national prominence, continues to advocate for allergy awareness and education. Perhaps not surprisingly, the go-getter teen sees a possible future in advocacy. “This experience has definitely helped me realize what I’m interested in,” she says. “I really enjoy the thrill of lobbying at the Capitol.”