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A Fifth-grader with Food Allergies Goes to Washington to Advocate for Her Community

By Barbara A. Preston | Posted April 4, 2024


Claire Sullivan, 11, sits at the allergy table at the Lower Middle School cafeteria with her friends during lunch break. “We eat at the peanut-free table,” Claire says. “All my friends have some sort of allergy. We are located far from the regular tables.”


Claire Sullivan, 11, on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.


Sullivan has been allergic to certain foods (peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, and some fish) for as long as she can remember. One of her friends, she says, has 27 allergens. A food allergy happens when a person’s immune system overreacts to a harmless food protein—an allergen. In the U.S., the nine most common food allergens are milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, shellfish, and sesame. But people also can be seriously allergic to celery, carrots, avocados, bell peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, mushrooms, onions, mustard, and a variety of spices.


“Some of us have very limited lunch options,” Claire says. “Even when I go out to eat at a restaurant there is a 90 percent chance that I cannot have the bread or the appetizers that others have. I’m still really tempted. “My brother was eating a Friendly’s ice cream sundae. I wanted to try it. It had fudge and everything, and my mouth was watering.”


Claire has an EpiPen — but it is not something she particularly wants to use. “I’ve never [used] the EpiPen,” she says. Obviously, she is cautious about what she eats. The risk of experiencing anaphylaxis, a potentially severe or life-threatening allergic reaction, or even being injected with a dose of Epinephrine would cause many to carefully watch what they eat.


Claire’s mother, Katie Sullivan, has helped her daughter to become an advocate for herself and for others who suffer from food allergies. There is no cure and limited treatments are available for the 33 million Americans who are living with potentially life-threatening food allergies, Katie says. Funding for additional research is crucial.


“Claire and I traveled to Washington D.C. [on March 6] to advocate on behalf of the food allergy community,” Katie says. “This issue is personal for us, as Claire was diagnosed with multiple food allergies as an infant.”


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The advocacy event was organized by FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education), a charitable organization with the mission to improve the quality of life and health of those with food allergies through transformative research, education, and advocacy. Approximately 250 food allergy advocates flew in from around the country to meet with their state offices to push for better laws for people with food allergies.


Top legislative efforts include The Adina Act, which would require medication and over-the-counter drugs to be labeled for the top nine allergens, and Dillon’s Law, which promotes widespread epinephrine training in order to save lives. During the trip, the Sullivans met with the offices of Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, Rep. Robert Menendez, Rep. Donald Payne Jr., and with Sen. Cory Booker’s office.


“The biggest thing is that we wanted to take this condition that is our reality and see what can we do to make it better,” Katie says. “You can be 11 and you can do something that makes a difference for something you care about. That is what prompted me to take her to Washington, D.C.” Be an advocate for change. Visit FARE at foodallergy.org.

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