Food Allergies on Food Stamps: When ‘Safe’ Food Doesn’t Fit the Budget

in Food Allergy
Published: June 9, 2015
IMG_1095Lianne Mandelbaum and Susan Weissman

When feeding a family with food restrictions, it’s easy to imagine the familiar quandary of standing in a grocery store aisle, momentarily stunned by the lack of choices: maybe your go-to brand of sliced bread was just made unsafe by the addition of soy flour. Or maybe your local supermarket abruptly stopped stocking your favored brand of rice milk. You shake off your frustration, sigh and move on knowing that you will find a substitute soon enough.

Now imagine yourself in the same grocery aisle actually holding the safe food you need but after checking the price, you put it down knowing you cannot afford to buy it today with your food stamps – or perhaps ever.

The question of access to safe food was first brought to my attention at the 2014 Food Allergy Bloggers Conference. For the second year since its inception FABCon’s founders arranged for all safe food products left behind to be donated to a local shelter at the close of that weekend.

An estimated two million Americans live in poverty with food allergies or celiac disease, and there are millions more who work but still rely on food banks to feed their families. I wondered how many of the families seeking help from the shelters across the country would find foods made in dedicated facilities, such as the products we were fortunate enough to bring home to our families. My son, Eden, is allergic to seven out of the Top 8 allergens, in addition to legumes and seeds. How could I possibly feed him safely if I had to rely on government programs? I’ve learned that many parents are struggling this, a problem that’s unimaginable to many of us.

Fellow blogger and allergy mom Lianne Mandelbaum and I realized there was an opportunity to re-create the goodwill from FABCon at other food allergy events, including the FARE New York Spring Luncheon in May that we were helping to organize.

We proposed our idea of the “FARE Hunger Initiative” to our fellow luncheon committee members with the following suggestions: any unopened packaged food items could be donated by guests from their luncheon goody bags; a donation bin could be provided for guests to bring non-perishable, packaged, allergy-friendly foods to the event; and any of our vendors, such as Enjoy Life Foods and The Sneaky Chef, could donate some of their products. Our FARE office put us in touch with New York’s City Harvest, which helps to feed people through more than 500 programs. They agreed to distribute our donations to families in need with food allergy restrictions.

“When 1 in 13 children in the U.S. has at least one food allergy, it is critically important for such programs to provide safe foods for those with food allergies, and we are pleased to see these needs being addressed through programs such as the Hunger Initiative in New York,” FARE CEO Dr. James Baker said after the event.

Through the Hunger Initiative, more than 1,100 food items were collected on the day of the luncheon, and with the help of our vendors, a total of 628 pounds of ‘friendly’ products were donated to help food allergy families in the city. But the real potential of our effort became apparent when I thanked our participating vendors on the Allergic Living Facebook page. There were immediate positive responses and assertions that access to safe food was of unrecognized importance.

“Buying food from dedicated facilities when you are on SNAP (food stamps) is pretty much a pipe dream. (I know, I’ve been there),” commented one Facebook user. “WIC [The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children] and SNAP are wonderful programs, but they don’t work too well for those with life-threatening food allergies. The cheapest foods are the worst ones, for everyone.”

Juell Frazier, a mother from Boston, recently told poverty reduction organization Talk Poverty that it’s a “struggle” to convert food stamps into safe food for her 5-year-old daughter Prayer, who is allergic to wheat, eggs, peanuts and tree nuts. The mother of two said that at times, balancing the high cost of allergy-safe foods on a tight budget can put her in an impossible position.

“I’ve had to make tough choices, taking away some of the money I allot for food for my other daughter in order to feed Prayer,” she said. “Taking food away from one mouth to try to feed the other – it’s terrible.”

pp2FEI's 'friendly' food pantry

Addressing this issue head-on, two food allergy parents in Overland Park, Kansas have started a non-profit called The Food Equality Initiative (FEI). On their website, they point out that The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 – which authorizes all of the federal child nutrition programs, such as School Breakfast, National School Lunch and WIC – provides packages that include eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese, peanut butter and many gluten-containing foods. In other words, foods that many families are restricted from consuming.

The response of Emily Brown and Amy Goode, FEI’s Founders, was to create the nation’s first allergy-friendly food pantry. As well, they encourage community gardening and organized advocacy.

Feeding a family with food restrictions can feel like a gamble even for those with resources and experience. It’s clear that our community also suffers from poverty in ways that we need to address nationwide. Regardless of income or dietary restrictions, if we don’t eat in accordance with our body’s needs, we put our health in danger. Let’s create a better option – or I fear we may be putting our allergic children even more at risk than they already are.


If you know of more food banks or programs helping low-income families with dietary restrictions, email us at [email protected].