Ever since I was a little kid, I have had life-threatening food allergies.
Now at 17, I am allergic to all of the Top 8 food allergens: peanuts, eggs, tree nuts, soy, milk, wheat, shellfish, and fish. As a result, I’ve never been able to enjoy a piece of birthday cake at a friend’s party or share a pizza with friends after a football game. I have ended up in the hospital numerous times because of anaphylactic reactions.
Although things can become difficult at times, I always try to focus on the positives. Instead of just coping with my food allergies, I use them as motivation. I believe that life isn’t about the birthday cake you may or may not be able to eat; it’s about the breath you take to blow out your candles and make your wishes come true.
With this motto in mind, I always try to make a difference. I want to make things better, and I learned that to achieve change, I have to step outside of my comfort zone and stand up for what I believe in. This motivation to create a better life for people like myself was exactly how I ended up working with my state representative on new legislation to help those with food allergies dine out safely – all before my high school graduation.
It began when I went to visit my sister who goes to college in Boston, Massachusetts. Our family went out for a meal, and I will never forget the experience. On the menu, there was a big notice saying, “Please inform your server if you have any food allergies.” Also, food items were labeled gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, nut-free, and so on. I was surprised to find that even the staff were really knowledgeable about cross-contact among different food items. These safety measures made the city feel like a completely different world, one where people actually cared about my food allergies.
Restaurants used to be the scariest thing for me; however, Boston changed my perspective. I was able to eat with ease. After researching, I found out that Massachusetts passed the Food Allergy Awareness Act in 2009 that mandated these precautions. I was so inspired by this that I decided to bring this type of legislation to my home state of Florida.
I spoke at length to the creators of the Massachusetts law and they gave me wonderful ideas on how to pass a similar bill. In my research, I also discovered that I could gain law-making experience at a club called Youth in Government, offered by the YMCA. Through this club, I was able to make my own bill and debate it at a Youth in Government State Assembly in Tallahassee, the state capital. Speaking to the large crowd of more than 1,000 delegates, I learned that anyone’s voice can be heard. It may be scary to speak in front of thousands of unknown faces, but by taking a chance, I found my calling in all of this. I was even recognized for drafting the “Best Bill”.
The food allergy bill that I brought forward with Representative Richard Stark mandates that all food servers and cooks in Florida learn about the intricacies of handling food safely for those with allergies. This information includes important guidelines, such as the fact that servers need to use separate knives when slicing allergen-containing foods to avoid any cross-contact. Further training for food handlers would be provided through an online class, which would lead to certification once completed. In addition, the bill requires informative posters to be placed in food-service kitchens to remind staff of proper protocols, as well as a note on menus asking patrons to alert servers to any allergies. Restaurant managers would also need to learn the signs and symptoms of food allergy reactions to help protect customers.
A minor technicality with the date that it would take effect prevented this bill from getting passed last year. However, I am not discouraged. Representative Stark and I will start working on this legislation again in the summer, after the school year ends, to make sure this bill becomes a law.
My goal in getting this legislation passed for those with food allergies is to greatly improve the quality of our lives. We shouldn’t have to choose between safety and dining out with friends and family. With a little awareness and compliance, we can make the world a better place for people with food allergies.
Cody Sklar is a high school senior in Florida. He hopes to one day become a physician and help find a cure for food allergies.
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