It’s been three years since Sergio Lopez, 24, died from anaphylaxis after eating a peanut-contaminated dish at a now-closed restaurant in McAllen. There isn’t a day that goes by that his mother, Belinda Vaca, doesn’t think about him, she said.
Vaca will tell his story Sunday at the 2nd annual Food Allergy Awareness Walk at Cine El Rey in McAllen. Her message is intended to encourage those who experience even minor allergic reactions to take them seriously, and to always keep epinephrine handy.
Up to 15 million Americans suffer from food allergies, including one in 13 children. Someone is sent to the emergency room from a food-related reaction every three minutes, according to Food Allergy Research and Education.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has reported an increase in food allergies over the last two decades. Sometimes called the “Big-8,” severe allergens include milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.
Young people think they’re immortal, she said, and they think a fatal reaction wouldn’t happen to them.
“The more people know of this, the more people will be saved,” Vaca said. “Just because your symptoms were very mild this time, I want to emphasize … that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be mild next time.”
The food-allergy advocate spends two days a week lobbying Texas politicians at the capitol in Austin, where many state senators know her by name. She does rounds dropping off T-shirts, flyers and information hoping to push related legislation related to food allergies.
Vaca said that at least half of the capitol offices she visits have receptive staffs who talk about someone they know with food allergies.
“I do this in honor of my son. It helps me from going crazy,” said the food-allergy advocate. “That’s how I deal with my grief. The more education and awareness, I feel like I’m going to save somebody else’s life.”
She credits Senate Bill 66 passed in 2015 by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, as already helping save a life. The law allows public schools to stock epinephrine auto-injectors, versus only having the potentially life-saving medicine for a specific student. This year, Senate Bill 579 aims to expand that to private schools, as well.
Vaca gives presentations to school districts around Texas, and she’s noticed nurses and cafeteria workers aren’t always aware of them. It’s not enough to simply push legislation if public perception doesn’t change.
A few bills failed this session, but Vaca said she’s not giving up. This is her mission, now, she said.
Senate Bill 1683, authored by state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, would have required restaurants to display food-allergen awareness poster for employees. Vaca said this could realistically be the first time they learn about this — and she hopes to remedy that by one day adding the information to the food handling requirements.
“I don’t just want food allergy awareness posters,” Vaca said. “You have to start out small.”
When Vaca has these changes made in Texas, she said, her aim is Washington D.C. She vowed to continue to push for more access to epinephrine, hoping it’s in all American schools and more public place.
“This is my legacy for him. To me it’s normal that you pass things down to your family,” Vaca said. “I don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve gone through.”
Attendees will walk in honor of Lopez and others who lost their lives to food allergies. Allergy-friendly appetizers will be provided by the Home Bakers Market and the Rio Grande Valley Chapter of the Texas Chef’s Association. The event is scheduled from 1 to 4 p.m.
WHEN: 1 p.m. today
WHERE: Cine El Rey, 311 S 17th St, McAllen