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Food allergies complicate hungry Americans’ search for food


Response: “You got something.”

Her daughter could only eat potatoes and salsa.

“It took all my strength to really make it into the car,” she said. “I cried in the car and then I just thought to myself, ‘We can’t be the only family, I can’t be the only mother, struggling with this.

For the millions of Americans experiencing food insecurity during the pandemic, a particular crisis is hitting those with food allergies and intolerances: Most charitable and government food programs offer limited options.

While some pantries maintain gluten-free shelves or post allergen information, most were forced last year to limit customer choices, turning instead to contactless models, where customers drive by. and take a pre-made bag of food.

“Everyone deserves an equal opportunity to choose their own foods,” said Carla Carter, director of outreach and programming at the National Celiac Association. But, she said, “Covid changed it quite a bit: ‘Here’s a box of food, good luck.'”

Those who sign up for government aid also face similar problems. The program for women, babies and children – known as WIC – offers a peanut butter substitute: it’s beans, not exactly useful for making sandwiches. Soy milk is an alternative to cow’s milk, but some people, such as Brown’s baby, cannot either.

Food stamps, or snaps, let families choose what to buy, but specialty foods — like gluten-free bread or sunflower seed butter — are often more expensive. In some stores, the latter costs triple the cost of store-brand peanut butter, gluten-free flours cost four times the cost of a standard bag, and even the cheapest dairy milk substitutes are often priced. are twice as many.

The nation’s largest anti-hunger organization, Feeding America, has not collected data on the overlap between hunger and food allergies or intolerances. But it is likely that the millions of Americans who are food insecure face some limits on what they can eat. An estimated 32 million people have food allergies, and 85 million people live in a home where someone has a food allergy or intolerance, according to Food Allergy Research and Education, which advocates for people with allergies. Carter said about 1% of people are diagnosed with celiac disease, meaning they can’t consume gluten, and about 6% of people have non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

After eight years of her food pantry experience, Brown is now one of the few people running a program dedicated to helping people with allergies and intolerances access safe foods.

Brown’s nonprofit, the Food Equality Initiative, serves nearly 200 families with celiac or food allergies, providing them with allergy-friendly foods for $150 per month to use in an online marketplace. Some of its customers use the benefits to supplement government assistance programs.

Dietitian Kate Scarlata is among advocates trying to change the conversation about food insecurity with what she calls a more respectful approach. He specializes in irritable bowel syndrome, which can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea and constipation when people consume certain foods including garlic and onions, ingredients found in many shelf-stable products such as sauces and soups.

She began visiting the food pantry in April to raise awareness, and she found that many of them didn’t ask people if they had intolerances or special dietary needs.

Charitable food programs can begin with a few simple questions she said: “Are you on a special diet? Are there any foods that bother you?”

Brown, meanwhile, is working with Drs. Ruchi Gupta and Lucy Bilver at the Center for Food Allergy and Asthma Research at Northwestern University set out to gather better information about how many people with allergies are food insecure, as no comprehensive data exists.

“The challenge before us is that the way we address food insecurity and food programming here in America is so common,” Brown said.

As pandemic risk subsides, advocates expect a return to customer choice programs. That’s the model Claudia Montenegro uses at her San Diego pantry, Porchlight Community Services, which is dedicated to serving people with food allergies.

In 2016, Montenegro was struggling to buy allergy-friendly foods to meet its gluten and dairy intolerances.

He and some friends decided to pool their money so they could buy in bulk and look for sales. Word of mouth grew, and she was soon distributing food from her porch.

Today, Porchlight has grown into a full-blown, volunteer-run food pantry, serving people with allergies to nuts, dairy, gluten and wheat, shellfish, eggs, and soy, and people with diabetes.

Customers are told to chip in $35 per week if they can, but those who can’t pay are still welcome. Volunteers buy all the food themselves, and shoppers can choose from items such as coconut-based yogurts, nut butters, lactose-free milk, and gluten-free flours.

Elizabeth Shoemaker turned to the porchlight during the pandemic, losing her job, her relationship and living space due to a hip replacement. At one point, her food aid payments dropped from $200 to $20. She developed a gluten intolerance but struggled to buy gluten-free products until she found Porchlight, offers them and serves a predominantly vegetable-based morass well.

She can’t afford the fee, so she volunteers at the pantry.

“I know now I can depend on them next week so I don’t need to hoard food,” she said.

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