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Teen's Sister Inspires Her to Push for Food Allergy Bill
Like most teenagers, Lauren Mongeau likes to hang out at restaurants with her friends. The only difference is that she never eats anything.
Lauren, 16, had so many food allergies that avoiding them in Rhode Island restaurants was nearly impossible, so she stopped eating out altogether. Even trace amounts of eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, beef, lamb, bananas, sesame seeds and mustard could trigger a life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis, and send her straight to the hospital.
"She usually chooses not to eat at all," said her older sister, Danielle Mongeau, 18. "She still wants to be part of it because she's in high school and just wants to be social and have a good time with her friends. It's a struggle that has seriously affected her life."
So Danielle did something about it.
In December 2011, she emailed Rhode Island State Sen. Louis DiPalma and asked him to introduce a bill that would create a food allergy awareness program for restaurants similar to the program already in place in Massachusetts. The law would require restaurants to post signs about food allergens and include menu notices to remind customers to alert their servers to any food allergies. Restaurants would also be required to designate a food allergies manager who would be undergo specific training about allergies and how to keep customers safe.
In her email to her state senator, Danielle told DiPalma that her family had gone out to eat only seven times without packing a homemade meal for Lauren. Of those seven restaurant trips, Lauren was hospitalized for anaphylactic shock five times.
She said servers often didn't understand the gravity of food allergies. As such, they often became "rude" when made aware of Lauren's and Danielle's dietary restrictions. (Danielle is allergic to tree nuts.) Once, the Mongeau family was asked to leave a restaurant because Lauren was spotted eating food from home instead of ordering off the menu, Danielle wrote.
Of the 60,000 emails DiPalma has received in his five years as a state senator, he said only two had come from teenagers, and Danielle's grabbed his attention.
"She's a phenomenal individual," DiPalma told ABCNews.com. "We didn't need to reinvent what's already good practice out there in Massachusetts, and that's what we chose to do."
The bill passed last year, and will take effect in July 2013. DiPalma said 300 restaurants had already the allergy training course online.
The day the bill passed, Danielle went to the Rhode Island Statehouse and met the governor. Now, Danielle, a high school senior, works there as a page. She is still weighing which college to attend next year.
"We're very proud of her," Danielle's mother, Debbie Mongeau, told ABCNews.com. "She has witnessed Lauren going into anaphylactic shock and it's scary. I remember her as a little girl saying, 'Mommy, I don't want Lauren to die.'"
For Lauren's 16th birthday March 15, the family went out for dinner to a restaurant where Debbie Mongeau knew the owners. For her next birthday, the law should be up and running.
"I think it's just going to make her feel a whole lot more comfortable dining out with friends," Danielle said.