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Meet the Jewish Teen Who’s Starting a Food Allergy Labeling Revolution

lauren maunus

The Challenge: There are 6 million American schoolchildren suffering from potentially life-threatening allergies and diet-related illnesses. Without proper labeling on food, the school cafeteria can be a very dangerous place.

The Solution: The School Food Labeling Initiative.

The Teen Hero Who’s Making This World A Better Place: Lauren Maunus, of Palm City, Florida.

Lauren-Maunus-White-House

Lauren was just 4 years old when she saw how dangerous unknown allergies could be. Her little sister almost died from an unexpected reaction to eating a cashew.

In 2011, when Lauren was a freshman in high school, she created the School Food Labeling Initiative to make sure that everyone could have access to the nutritional information they need. In the past four years, she’s worked with local, state, and federal officials on this project. She’s been to Capitol Hill three times, lobbying for support; she has spoken with members of Congress, the USDA, the CDC, the FDA and many medical and nonprofit organizations to make this initiative a nationwide movement. She also helped develop software for school district websites and an accompanying app, so students can be empowered to check on the nutritional information for school fare on their own. And she gave an incredible TEDxYouth talk called “The Persuasive Power of Passion: From Love to Legislation,” that should be required watching for all teens (and adults).

Lauren is currently working on amending the USDA’s Child Nutrition Act to include allergen labeling. She’s thrilled to be starting her first year at Brown University in Rhode Island, where she’s studying international relations and environmental studies. And she’s incredibly grateful to the Helen Diller Family Foundation for their help in getting the School Food Labeling Initiative to this transformative level. This year Lauren won a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award for her passionate work.

We caught up with her between classes to ask a few questions about what it took to get here.

NOMINATIONS WANTED: Do you know a teen activist who deserves a $36k prize?

What is your favorite food?

Avocado.

Your favorite song?

Jack Johnson’s “With My Own Two Hands.”

Your favorite thing to do with free time?

I love reading newspaper articles and editorials about current events and human rights. Also recipe blogs.

What’s been the hardest part of all your lobbying and rallying for support?

I think getting people to acknowledge and appreciate the importance of what I had to say. Especially being a youth. A lot of older people were excited to see a young face, but they didn’t necessarily take me seriously.

Another huge obstacle was as I scaled the project from the local to the state to the federal level, it became harder and harder to accomplish anything. But I’m appreciative of having the experience because I’m looking to work with an NGO. It helped shape my goal.

Lauren-and-Rachel

What’s been the biggest reward from this work?

Knowing that I was able to give this information to 3 million students in Florida. Knowing that I accomplished that…it’s really rewarding. My sister has a lot of friends who deal with life-threatening allergies and hearing someone come up to me and say, “Thank you”—it’s amazing.

How do you feel about all the attention your work has been getting?

Sometimes it’s a bit overwhelming. I know the attention is good—social media is such an integral part of spreading the work of the initiative. It’s all about awareness and getting constituents to affect change. It’s been really effective in the past to show it’s a legitimate movement. On the other hand, sometimes I feel like I want to spend more time advocating than the doing all the publicity around it. It’s just tricky trying to find that balance.

If you could have lunch with anyone and tell them about the initiative, who would it be?

Michelle Obama. I think that would be an incredible experience. We have a lot of compatible goals. I actually got to speak with her Deputy Chief of Staff at The White House!

Who’s your biggest hero?

Hmmm, I don’t like to look up to just one person. But rather I admire the qualities of people. I’ve done some work with farm workers and undocumented immigrants and was so impressed. Especially with how hard they work and how dedicated they are despite all the obstacles they face.

Anything else you’d like to say about the School Food Labeling Initiative or your Tikkun Olam award?

I’m just really thankful for all of the Diller Foundation’s support. It gave me a lot of motivation for the project. It helped a lot with my education and to continue the project while I’m at school.

This post is sponsored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation. To learn more about the foundation’s $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, visit www.dillerteenawards.orgNominations are open for the 2016 awards, now through Dec. 1

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