Mother fights for change after son dies of food allergy

McALLEN — The third annual Food Allergy Awareness Walk took place recently at the Cine El Rey theater in memory of Harlingen’s Sergio A. Lopez, who died four years ago from an allergic reaction to eating peanuts.

Belinda Vaca, Sergio’s mother, attended the event to honor her son’s legacy and to spread awareness by telling his story. She also spoke to a group of about 30 about the changes she hopes to make by passing a law for restaurants to change their menus for those with food allergies.

“My son was a top A student at Harlingen High and all through grade school and aiming to be class valedictorian, but his junior year, he started getting anxiety,” she said. “I wondered where this was coming from. He got his food allergy when he was 3 years old, but he was very careful and always asked at restaurants.”

Approximately 15 million people in the United States have food allergies and about 30 percent of children have multiple food allergies.

According to the national organization, Food Allergy Research and Education, or F.A.R.E., a food allergy is an adverse health effect resulting from a specific immune response that occurs reproducibly on exposure to a given food, also known as an allergic reaction.

There is no cure for food allergy. Strict avoidance of food allergens, early recognition and management to certain foods are important measures to prevent serious health consequences.

The awareness event began with a memorial walk from the theater to Business 83 and back to the theater along the 17th Street sidewalk. After the walk, Vaca told stories about her son, Sergio and the severity of his allergy if he would consume anything that contained peanuts and how she has become an advocate for change after the death.

“My son died in 2014, so 2015 was my first legislation and I went with Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. and he was kind enough to sponsor the bill for me right from the get-go. The reason he was for it is because of his grandson and it touched home,” Vaca said. “The day after my son died, I called and emailed (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) and asked what I can do because this can’t happen again.”

The FDA then transferred her to the national organizations F.A.R.E. and FAACT (Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Connection Team) to discuss with them her situation.

According to FARE, every three minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone to an emergency room in the United States with symptoms ranging from mild to moderate, and in some cases, severe.

Some allergic reactions could be hives, redness of the skin, itchy mouth and stomach pain with a list of others. Severe reactions may include swelling of tongue, shortness of breath, trouble swallowing and chest pain among others.

The bill reads there are eight major foods that cause food allergy reactions. The foods are peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish. In addition, many of these reactions to food allergens can be avoided by informing all employees who come in contact with the food they are serving in public, but unfortunately, food establishments are not required to have any type of information displayed to their staff.

With the address of the bill, the food establishments would require a display of a food allergen awareness poster in an area accessible primarily to employees of the establishment.

The poster must include information of the risk of an allergic reaction, the major food allergens, and methods of preventing cross-contamination in food preparation.

Since first filing the bill in 2015, Vaca hasn’t backed down from spreading the news with hopes that her son’s case will be a change for restaurants across Texas and the United States by becoming a law.

In the 2015 legislative session, the bill was first written, but failed to move forward. She tried again in the 2017 session and missed the deadline by one day from moving ahead into the house. She said she hopes in 2019 it finally becomes a state law.

“What I do during session, I go every day to somebody’s office,” Vaca said. “Every time I go in, somebody knows somebody who has an allergy, a niece, a granddaughter or a neighbor. Each office I went to, they had known somebody with a food allergy.”

The one-day awareness event also included families coming together and sharing their stories, ranging from their struggles with an allergy to speaking about their children, who deal with similar problems.