Greens Farms Academy is a PreK-12, coed school in Westport, CT

Senior Sparks Legislative Talks on Food Safety

Imagine that you are a person with food allergies. It’s fairly easy to see what ingredients are contained in items that you purchase at the grocery store. Like GFA, most schools are highly sensitive to the needs of students, faculty, and staff with food allergies and make appropriate accommodations. So you’re relatively safe at home and at school. But what about when you go out to a restaurant or order take out? Without a list of all ingredients for each dish, how do you know you’re safe?

Senior Sanskriti Kumar has been working alongside Connecticut state representatives for the last couple years hoping to ensure the safety of food-allergy sufferers. Together they have written and hope to pass legislation that would require restaurants to implement better practices to ensure the safety of those with food allergies.

The mission is personal to Kumar. A lifelong food allergy sufferer, she explained that an overlooked side-effect of food allergies is anxiety — how can you trust that what you’re eating is safe once you venture outside your house or school? This anxiety can prevent people from eating anywhere outside their own home.

“I've had a few scares and it developed into allergy anxiety later in my life, especially around like 10 or 11 when I had a really bad allergic reaction — that just kind of made me really afraid to eat any place that wasn't my mom's kitchen,” she said.  “I luckily was able to face my fears, and my family has been really supportive and helping me out quite a bit. But I know that I wouldn't have been able to do that if I hadn't developed relationships with certain restaurants that were super careful about my food allergies and that really took care of that.”

Inspired by a food allergy law that passed in Rhode Island a few years ago, and driven by an interest in legislation, Kumar began to look into the process of creating legislation in Connecticut that would help ensure the safety of all consumers. Her first step was to reach out to the dining establishments in her area — she wanted this to be a collaborative effort rather than a critical one.

“I called 50 or 60 restaurants in Stamford — I wanted to see what tangible goals I could meet through legislation, and then be able to convey that to my legislators,” she explained.

She came up with a four-question system to get the information she needed. She would ask the restaurant owners:

  • Have you received food safety training?
  • Do you label your menus?
  • Do you have a separate kitchen area for food containing allergens?
  • What precautions do you take, in general, for food allergies?

This research helped Kumar determine that very few restaurants — about 13 of the ones she interviewed — disclosed the ingredients in their menu items. Even the efforts of those 13 were superficial at best, merely using labels like “vegan” or “gluten-free,” which aren’t very useful to those with dairy or nut allergies, for example. Getting restaurants to list ingredients was an area where she could encourage improvement.

Now that she had identified a place to start, the next step would be to get the support of local representatives. Kumar emailed 20–30 legislators around the state, asking them to champion her ideas by helping develop a bill. The first person she heard from was Connecticut State Representative David Michel — her own representative — who was eager to get involved, and who was on the state Public Health Committee at the time.

Kumar said, “He was really excited to see a bill like this pass and he really wanted to work with me on this, which I was super, super grateful for. I don't think I would have been able to do any of this without him.” 

Together they began to research precedent — there was none. They would have to start from scratch.  Next came the draft. By September of 2020, the two felt confident about their ability to present the item at the January 2021 General Assembly. Unfortunately, delays emerged with the ongoing COVID health crisis, Michel moved to the Transportation Committee, and they had to figure out a different angle to get the language introduced.

“Rep. Michel and I decided that it would be easier to incorporate this part of the bill into a larger bill that had previously been put forth — part of a broader food allergy bill,” she explained. “It would be more comprehensive and would include more funding for research on food allergies.”

Despite the change in her team and the change in her tactic, Kumar said that her original vision is still very strong within the larger legislation. She is hoping that this bipartisan effort will be introduced as part of the February 2022 General Assembly.

“In the meantime, we’re doing outreach and getting the word out to the public so they can let their representatives know that they’re interested in this kind of legislation,” she said.

Regardless of whether she gets traction in the legislation, she said the important part of her work will always be educating the public, and she seeks other ways to get the word out. She’s discovered one avenue in helping area school districts learn more about the issue.

A GFA student since seventh grade, Kumar said she is glad about how careful the school has been with food allergies. However, not every student has the same experience.

“We [at GFA] are lucky to have enough resources, but not every school district is like that,” she said. “There are a lot of students who need to bring in their own food all the time because they’re concerned about safety, or there aren’t enough options.”

Food allergies are affecting more and more people, according to Kumar, and getting information out there will save lives.

“It’s affecting more than just my friends and me. Once you hear about what’s going on with food allergies, I think it will change your perspective,” she predicted. “This is a small way to start, but it’s going to have a large impact.”