Trio of GHS Students Fight Back against Food Allergies with Legislation and Invention

Three Greenwich High School students who are too familiar with the dangers of food allergies are taking a two-pronged approach to making a difference.

Robert Vine, from the class of 2025, said he has grown up with allergies to pistachio nuts and cashews.

“My mom would always remind me to bring my EpiPen or AUVI-Q with me,” he recalled of the auto-injectors used for emergency treatment of anaphylaxis, the life-threatening allergic reaction that is a real threat to millions of Americans, including children.

GHS students Maia Coplit, Lilia Vine and Robert Vine. June 9, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

Robert described having had allergic reactions more than once, with his third anaphylactic reaction being the worst.

Putting both hands to his neck, Robert recalled how his throat had swollen making it difficult to breathe. The result has been constant fear it might happen again, and frustration at the lack of awareness of the seriousness of food allergies in the US.

“You hear ‘allergies,’ and you think sneezing in spring,” Robert said. “It doesn’t sound serious due to the fact that allergies are treatable, and the number of people who die is not as high as other situations, but it is serious and it is scary.”

Last year Robert and his sister Lilia, who is a member of the class of 2026, and their family traveled to Ireland, where they were impressed at how restaurants, even in small villages, featured food allergy information on menus.

While the Vines were in Ireland, Lilia’s friend Maia Coplit and her family were visiting relatives in Pennsylvania when she had an anaphylactic reaction to cashews and wound up in the hospital emergency room.

Afterward, Maia recalled contacting the Vines.

“They showed us the menus and we wondered why Europe had already done so much to increase safety for people with food allergies, even though 10% of Americans have food allergies.”

Since then, Robert, Lilia and Maia have taken action.

They have invented what they call a SercaCase, which is a cell phone case designed for a person with food allergies to keep their EpiPen or AUVI-Q handy.

The process has been a challenge. For starters, the costs to create a prototype were all up front.

Working with a manufacturer based in China who 3D-print a prototype and from there create a mold, Robert said they negotiated down the fee for the mold.

“We’re on a shoestring budget,” he said. “Prices for actual cases are lower, but the price for each mold was thousands of dollars, depending on the type of cell phone.”

At this point the students are working on their second manufacturer prototype and have filed a patent application.

“It helped to have patent lawyer friends,” Lilia said. “But there was a lot to figure out on our own.”

Working with the US Patent Office, the students filed for micro-entity status.

“That means we’re small and they might reduce our fees,” she said.

The students are working on a website and look forward to the launch of their product, SercaCase.

In the meantime Robert, Lilia and Maia said they would be grateful if GFP readers would take their survey to give feedback.

With their invention Robert, Lilia and Maia were only getting started.

Maia said that during the Live Like Luke beach clean up they connected with State Rep Steve Meskers (D-150) from Greenwich who connected them to State Rep Robin Comey (D-102) in Branford, who was working on a bill, HB 5902, to mandate that restaurants train employees in food allergen awareness and provide ingredient lists.

“Rep Meskers came over for dinner and gave us a couple hours explaining the process,” Maia said. “He put us in touch with Rep Comey and she made us part of her team!”

“It felt gratifying,” Lilia said. “Robert and Maia have such burdens – just imagine being scared of eating anything. Suddenly here is a chance to help.”

Robert explained that while State Rep Comey had been considering possible legislation for several years, it had stalled during Covid.

“Then, in mid-2022, when restaurants reopened and the economy was recovering she thought it was the right time,” he said.

After Meskers put the students in touch with Rep Comey, the students got to work.

“She introduced us to Jason Linde, the Senior Vice President for Government and Community Affairs for FARE, which is short for Food Allergy Research & Education. They lobby for people with food allergies.”

“The leading cause of death in Connecticut is heart disease. In Connecticut, 7% of people have heart disease, but 10% have allergies,” Maia said, adding that at school there is a designated “nut-free table” occupied by students who take their allergies seriously, but others sometimes are not sympathetic.

“Students don’t always understand that there can be an ingredient in a dish that basically poisons them,” she said.

“An estimated 32 million Americans have life threatening allergies,” Robert said. “And in Connecticut alone, there are 350,000 people. In America, when you take into account family members of people with food allergies there are 100 million people impacted. For any other disease with those numbers, it would be considered an epidemic.”

Robert said Rep Comey and Mr. Linde spent many hours with him, Maia and Lilia.

“It was unbelievable the lengths they went to help us,” he said. “They let us testify in front of the state house about food allergies.  Chair of the Public Health Committee, a doctor, said he was really impressed and gave us a lot of praise.”

To Maia, Lilia and Robert’s delight, the legislation passed in the House.

From there, the students joined elected officials at an event in May organized by Rep Comey in Hartford the day after the legislation passed. There Maia and Lilia had their photo taken with Governor Lamont when he signed the executive order creating a Food Allergy Awareness Week in Connecticut.

“The Senate passed the legislation last week,” Robert said. “It was the very end of the session and we got it through in the nick of time. It was bi-partisan. We had 89% of the votes.”

The students explained the new law requires restaurant menus to have a disclaimer saying customers need to inform their servers about their food allergies.

It also requires every kitchen have a poster listing the primary food allergies and procedures to prevent cross-contamination.

A third requirement is that there be one certified food manager for allergies on staff.

“We’re glad it passed, but it’s just a first step,” Lilia said. “Eventually we’d like to get to the point where American menus are like the EU menus where every item is labeled and there is a key at the bottom.”

“These measures do not hurt restaurants. It’s done all over the EU,” Robert said. “The restaurant P.F. Chang’s did a study and found that it increased their business. It makes people more comfortable.”

“People have all these medications for their reactions,” Lilia said. “But it’s better not to have to use them.”

Rep Meskers said he was proud of Lilia, Maia and Robert.

“My constituents came to me, expressed a problem and concern that they had. I was able to put them forward to my colleagues in the House, and they were able to help draft and developed legislation that’s been passed by both chambers and awaits signature by the governor.”

Meskers said he couldn’t think of a better example of democracy at the local level than the three students participating in the legislative process and effecting change.

“I’m so proud of the effort they gave, and happy to have played the small part,” he added.