It was a beautiful spring day in 2014. I sat in my car and looked at the grocery sack on the seat next to me. I had just visited a food pantry for the first time, and while I was grateful for the contents of the bag – a jar of salsa and two potatoes – I was frustrated with the lack of safe food to help feed my food-allergic family.
Tears rolled down my face as I thought of the conversation I’d just had with the pantry manager. When I asked about gluten-free and allergy-friendly options, she responded, “We don’t have any, but you were able to get something, right?”
I thanked her as I tried to keep it together. After spending 90 minutes waiting for food assistance with my infant daughter, I watched as client after client left with carts full of food. I was heartbroken to discover that hunger and food allergies just don’t mix.
Like many families during tough times, we were in need of assistance, but we could not use many of the staples provided through the federal nutrition program called Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) because of its lack of allergy-friendly choices. Faced with food pantries that were ill-prepared to serve clients with special diets, and knowing my family was not alone, I became desperate; change simply had to come.
Out of this epiphany, the Food Equality Initiative, Inc. (FEI) was born. In 2014, Amy Goode and I began to lay the foundation for our organization. Amy, who is the mother of a child with multiple food allergies, believes access to safe and healthy food should be available to everyone. At its core, FEI is a non-profit dedicated to ending hunger and improving the health of low-income individuals living with food allergies and celiac disease. So logically, our first major project was the creation of an allergy-friendly and gluten-free food pantry.
After considerable research and consultation with hunger experts and medical professionals, plus nine months spent sourcing food and developing programs, FEI opened its first allergy-friendly and gluten-free food bank, ReNewed Health, located at the New Haven Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Overland Park, Kansas. The facility stocks roughly 100 products, including gluten-free pastas, breads, flours and mixes, non-dairy milks, peanut butter alternatives, egg replacers and fresh fruits and vegetables.
Unlike typical pantries where clients receive about three days’ worth of food, our clients receive one month’s supply of food based on their dietary needs. Eligibility requirements include a physician’s note or lab results confirming a diagnosis of food allergies or celiac disease and documentation of financial need. It is not uncommon for a client to receive more than 100 pounds of food at a single appointment. This is made possible by our generous partners, food drives and grocery recovery programs, as well as donors.
In the first six weeks we were open, the pantry served 53 clients and distributed 1,750 pounds of food. The response has been tremendous. Dawn Grabs, a pantry client, said: “I have struggled all my life with food allergies. Allergy-friendly foods were just too expensive. FEI has enabled me to try new foods without the heavy cost burden.” Now our goals include expanding our partnerships and pantries to other areas.
In the meantime, FEI continues to work with local hospitals and medical offices for client referrals, and to improve existing programs. According to Dr. Chitra Dinakar, director of the Food Allergy Center at Children’s Mercy Hospital, “Families of individuals with food allergies not only face the unremitting anxiety and uncertainty associated with having a condition where each bite of food needs to be closely scrutinized, they also face considerable economic hardship due to the high cost of special diets and allergen-free foods.”
FEI is now also collaborating with Feeding America and our local food bank, Harvesters, to eliminate challenges food banks and pantries face.
After my first visit to a local food pantry, it was hard to imagine an allergy-friendly facility dedicated to serving our community. When I left that parking lot in tears, I only dreamed of a future where people don’t have to choose between going hungry and staying safe. Today, I know that future is closer than ever.
Emily Brown, CEO of Food Equality Initiative, Inc., lives in Kansas City with her husband and two food-allergic daughters. Visit www.foodequalityinitiative.org to learn more.