First Lady Patricia Blagojevich launches food allergy awareness effort to save children’s lives

First lady of Illinois Patricia B.

“We’re stepping forward to help parents protect children from a danger we cannot ignore,” said Mrs. Blagojevich. “Allergies shouldn’t prevent kids from enjoying food at school or in restaurants. With better awareness about the risks of food allergies, we can help kids with food allergies stay safe at school and at their favorite restaurant. As a parent of a food allergic child, I understand the difficulty of safeguarding children that simply wants to have the same food and fun as their friends. Working together, we can protect our sons and daughters health and prevent the tragedies of severe reactions.”

The initiative was announced today at Children’s Memorial Hospital, where a study is underway to better understand the genetic and environmental influences on the recent increases in food allergies. Out of 3,600 pediatric outpatient allergy visits to the hospital in fiscal year 2007, 39% were due to food allergies. “Food allergy is a growing problem that affects kids, their families and the community, particularly schools,” said Jacqueline Pongracic, M.D., head of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Children’s Memorial. “We need to increase awareness and devote more resources toward food allergy research to understand its causes in order to develop better strategies for prevention and treatment.”

“Ask Before You Eat” will promote public awareness through a new brochure, promotional wristbands for children and adults, posters, print and web-based advertisements. With support from the Illinois Departments of Public Health, Illinois Children and Family Services and the Illinois State Board of Education, outreach to schools, communities and the food service industry will begin at the National Restaurant Association convention later this month and will continue at over 25 events, fairs and festivals over the coming year. Awareness efforts will also target child care centers, community learning centers, park districts, summer camps and after-school programs. The “Ask Before You Eat” brochure highlights simple and practical ways that parents and school and restaurant staff can safeguard children with food allergies.

This campaign comes in support of proposed legislation in both the U.S. Congress and Illinois House of Representatives. In Illinois, House Bill 5338 would require the State Board of Education and Department of Public Health to develop guidelines for assisting students with life-threatening food allergies and make those guidelines available to school boards across the state. The proposal strikes at a key danger to these students, as 84% of children with food allergies experience a reaction while attending school.

“The increasing number of students with food allergies in our districts is a growing concern, that poses challenges locally for parents, students and staff,” said State Superintendent of Education, Christopher A. Koch. “We look forward to working with the First Lady to increase awareness in our schools and provide assistance in creating safer environments for our students.”

“The Illinois Department of Public Health is committed to the health and safety of our children,” said Dr. Damon T. Arnold, Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health. “I want to make sure every student gets the assistance they need to avoid eating potentially life threatening foods. Food allergies can lead to adverse reactions in children and are not to be taken lightly.”

The most common food allergens include peanuts and tree nuts, soy, fish and shellfish, milk products, wheat and eggs. Even tiny amounts of these food allergens can spark a reaction, and there is no cure, only prevention and treatment. Symptoms can range from skin rash to shortness of breath, but can lead to fatal tragedy with little warning. Serving allergen-free foods depends on a cooperative effort between parents and the schools, facilities, programs and businesses that serve food to children.

Illinois has been inspired by the State of New Jersey’s “Ask Before You Eat” initiative and how they have taken a lead on this issue. First Lady Blagojevich looks forward to joining them in being a part of the national dialogue.