SACRAMENTO, California — When Emily Brown, a Kansas City mother, couldn't find foods that her 2-year-old with multiple food allergies could eat at a local food pantry, she mustered up the courage to ask about gluten-free foods or dairy alternatives.
The response: "You got something."
The only things her daughter could eat were potatoes and salsa.
"It took, really, all of my strength to make it to the car," she said. "I cried in the car and then I just thought to myself, 'We cannot be the only family, I cannot be the only mother, struggling with this."
For the millions of Americans newly 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 to limit clients choices last year, instead turning to contactless models where clients drive up and take a pre-made bag of food.
"Everybody deserves an equal opportunity to select their own foods," said Carla Carter, director of outreach and programming at the National Celiac Association. But, she said, "COVID drastically changed that into: 'Here's a box of food, good luck.'"
Those signing up for government assistance face similar problems. The program for women, infants and children – known as WIC – offers a substitute for peanut butter: It's beans, not exactly useful for making sandwiches. Soy milk is a substitute for cow's milk, but some people, like Brown's child, can't have either.
Food stamps, or SNAP, let families choose what to buy, but specialized foods – like gluten free bread or sunflower seed butter – are often far more expensive. In some stores, the latter costs triple the cost of store-brand peanut butter, gluten free flour costs four times a standard bag, and even the cheapest dairy milk alternatives are often double the price.
Feeding America, the nation's largest anti-hunger organization, hasn't gathered data on the overlap between hunger and food allergies or intolerance. But it's likely millions of Americans who are food insecure face some 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 a non-Celiac gluten sensitivity Carter said.
Eight years after her food pantry experience, Brown is now one of the few people running a program dedicated to helping people with allergies and intolerance access safe foods.
Brown's nonprofit, the Food Equality Initiative, serves about 200 families with Celiac or food allergies, providing them $150 per month to use in an online marketplace with allergy-friendly foods. Some of her clients use the benefit to supplement government assistance programs.
Dietician Kate Scarlata is among advocates trying to change the conversation around food insecurity by promoting what she calls a more dignified approach. She specializes in irritable bowel syndrome, which can cause stomach pain, diarrhea and constipation when people consume certain foods including garlic and onion, ingredients found in many shelf-stable products like sauces and soups.
She launched a tour of food pantries in April to raise awareness, and she found many of those she visited weren't asking people if they had 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, is working with Drs. Ruchi Gupta and Lucy Bilaver at the Center for Food Allergy & Asthma Research at Northwestern University to gather better information on how many people with allergies are food insecure, because no comprehensive data exists.
"The challenge we have is that the way we address food insecurity and food programming here in the U.S. is just so general," Brown said.
As the pandemic risks wane, advocates hope to see a return to client 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 afford allergy friendly foods to meet her gluten and dairy intolerances.
She and some friends decided to pool their money so they could buy in bulk and looks for sales. Word of mouth grew, and she was soon distributing food from her porch.
Today, Porchlight's grown to a full-fledged, volunteer-run food pantry serving people allergic to nuts, dairy, gluten and wheat, shellfish, egg and soy, and those who are diabetic.
Clients are asked 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 items like coconut-based yogurts, 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, her food assistance payments decreased from $200 to $20. She developed a gluten intolerance but struggled to afford gluten-free products until she found Porchlight, provides those and caters well to her mainly vegetable-based died.
She can't afford the fee, so she volunteers at the pantry.
"I know now I can depend on them the next week, so I don't have to horde food," she said.