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Food allergies make it harder for hungry Americans to find meals

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – When Emily Brown, a Kansas City mom, couldn’t find food her 2-year-old with multiple food allergies could eat at a local pantry, she found the courage to ask questions about gluten. free food or dairy substitutes.

The response: “You have something.

The only things her daughter could eat were potatoes and salsa.

“It took me, really, all of my strength to get to the car,” she said. “I cried in the car and then I was like, ‘We can’t be the only family, I can’t be the only mother struggling with this.’

For the millions of Americans newly faced with food insecurity during the pandemic, a particular crisis hits those with food allergies and intolerances: Most charity and government food programs offer limited options.

While some pantries maintain gluten-free shelves or post information on allergens, most have been forced to limit customer choices in the past year, turning instead to contactless models where customers drive by car. and take a pre-made food bag.

“Everyone deserves an equal chance to choose their own foods,” said Carla Carter, director of outreach and programming at the National Coeliac Association. But, she said, “COVID drastically changed that to, ‘Here’s a box of food, good luck. “

Those who sign up for government assistance face similar problems. The program for women, infants and children – known as WIC – offers a substitute for peanut butter: these are beans, not really useful for making sandwiches. Soy milk is a substitute for cow’s milk, but some people, like Brown’s child, can’t have it either.

Food stamps, or SNAPs, allow families to choose what to buy, but specialty foods – like gluten-free bread or sunflower seed butter – are often much more expensive. In some stores, the latter costs three times as much as branded peanut butter, gluten-free flour costs four times a standard bag, and even the cheapest milk alternatives are often double the price.

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

Eight years after her pantry experience, Brown is now one of the few people to lead a program dedicated to helping allergy and intolerant people access safe food.

Brown’s nonprofit, the Food Equality Initiative, serves around 200 families with celiac disease or food allergies, providing them with $ 150 a month to use in an online marketplace with allergy-free foods. Some of its clients use the benefit to supplement government assistance programs.

Dietitian Kate Scarlata is among advocates trying to change the discourse on food insecurity by promoting what she calls a more dignified approach. She specializes in irritable bowel syndrome, which can cause upset stomach, diarrhea and constipation when people consume certain foods, including garlic and onion, ingredients found in many products for a long time. preservation like sauces and soups.

She launched a pantry tour in April to raise awareness, and found that many of those she visited did not ask people if they had any intolerances or special dietary needs.

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

Brown, meanwhile, works with Drs. Ruchi Gupta and Lucy Bilaver of the Center for Food Allergy & Asthma Research at Northwestern University to collect better information on the number of allergy sufferers who are food insecure, as there is no comprehensive data.

“The challenge we have is that the way we approach food insecurity and food programming here in the United States is so general,” Brown said.

As the risks of a pandemic decrease, advocates hope to see a return to the programs of choice of the client. This is the model Claudia Montenegro uses in her San Diego pantry, Porchlight Community Services, which is dedicated to serving people with food allergies.

In 2016, Montenegro struggled to afford allergen-free foods to cope with its gluten and dairy intolerance.

She and a few friends decided to pool their money so that they could buy in bulk and look for sales. Word of mouth grew and she soon distributed food from her front porch.

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

Guests are asked to pay $ 35 per week if they can, but those who cannot pay are always welcome. Volunteers buy all the food themselves, and shoppers can choose from items like coconut yogurt, nut butters, lactose-free milk and gluten-free flour.

Elizabeth Shoemaker turned to Porchlight during the pandemic, after a hip replacement caused her to lose her job, her relationship and her place to live. At one point, his food aid payments went from $ 200 to $ 20. She developed a gluten intolerance but struggled to afford gluten-free products until she found Porchlight, provided her with some and taken care of her death mainly based on vegetables.

She can’t afford the fees, so she volunteers in the pantry.

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

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