What Can You Do If You Can’t Afford Allergen-Free Foods?
Most people with food allergies tend to spend more for groceries than those without food allergies. This is because allergy-friendly foods are often classified as specialty items and may cost more than similar foods.
The good news is, there is an increasing availability of allergy-friendly foods as the market grows to serve this population with special dietary needs. But shopping for allergen-free food has always been more expensive than shopping for food in general. Inflation can raise the price of food. And buying special food for a child with food allergies can cost 30% more than non-allergic foods. With a higher price tag, allergen-friendly foods may be too costly for many households already struggling to afford the cost of groceries.
So what can you do? The truth is, finding and paying for allergen-free foods is spotty at best throughout the United States. Nationally the options are limited, but locally some good programs may be available.
What nationwide and local resources are available?
Use this information as a starting point to finding available programs and resources. If you know of other resources to help people find allergen-free foods, please contact us. You can help us keep our list as comprehensive and up-to-date as possible.
The USDA website offers a state-by-state listing of available food and nutrition-related agencies and other resources. The listings include programs like SNAP, WIC, school lunch programs and many others. This site also links to information about allowable food substitutions for WIC packages. Substitutions can be limited and may vary by state agency.
School lunch programs
The National School Lunch Program provides free or low-cost lunches to children and teens through high school. This program is available at both private and public schools. There are eligibility requirements, but any child whose family receives SNAP benefits can qualify.
Most children with food allergies are eligible for a Section 504 Plan at school. A 504 Plan classifies food allergy as a disability. It would require the school to make accommodations to keep the food-allergic child safe. Parents need to have a 504 Plan each school year. Talk to your school nurse or the school’s designated 504 Plan coordinator to request help creating a 504 Plan.
The Weekend Backpack Program distributes “backpacks” of food, normally on a Friday. The backpacks contain various food items to make a few healthy meals over the weekend. Families with food allergies would need to contact the program to see if the food provided is allergy safe.
The Summer Food Service Program provides free meals and snacks to children and teens in low-income communities. With this program, children need to go to a designated site to get their meal. This program is required to provide allergen-safe foods to children with a 504 Plan.
Food Equality Initiative (FEI) Nutrition Assistance Program
This nutrition assistance program provides subsidized, direct door-to-door allergen-safe foods. People need to apply and get approved for the program.
Food pantries are independent community sites where people can pick up donated groceries to make their own meals. Food pantries store and distribute food directly to those in need. There are more than 15,000 food pantries in communities across the United States.
You can search online for food pantries in your area. Three food pantries that focus specifically on food allergies:
- S.A.F.E. Food Pantry – provides allergy-friendly foods to the residents of Howard County, Maryland.
- The Rachel Way – a virtual food pantry that provides allergy-safe foods to approved applicants in certain parts of Pennsylvania.
- Mend Hunger – provides access to allergy-safe, gluten-free foods in times of personal emergency and/or natural or man-made disasters. People who are without consistent access to enough safe food receive monthly food support.
Some food pantries may have soup kitchens on site. Soup kitchens serve freshly-cooked, ready-to-eat meals which can be eaten on their premises. The meals are served to anyone who turns up, with no questions asked. The food may or may not be allergen-safe, and there’s likely a high risk of cross-contact with food allergens and via cooking equipment. So soup kitchens may not be a good option for people with food allergies.
School food pantries
More than 4,000 school food pantries are in operation across the country. These are located in or near schools and provide free foods to families. Families with food allergies need to let the staff know about their allergy, as allergen-free foods may or may not be available.
College food pantries
About 29% of 4-year college students and 39% of 2-year college students say they struggle to afford the cost of food. More colleges are beginning to recognize this issue. Currently, 25% of colleges and universities offer or are planning to offer food pantries for students.
Students with food allergies should let the college’s food staff know about their allergy, as allergen-free foods may or may not be available.
Local food banks
Food banks are usually non-profit organizations that collect and distribute food to hunger-relief charities. It stores and distributes foods to local partners including food pantries. They usually do not give out food directly to people. There are more than 200 food banks across the United States. Many are large warehouses – often twice the size of a normal warehouse store.
You can search online for food banks in your area. Many will separate allergen-safe and gluten-free products from other food products.
Nourish America provides healthy, organic and nutritious food tailored to children tailored to their unique needs. The organization has a network of food banks and food pantries, particularly in urban areas and/or underserved communities.
Securing Safe Food
Securing Safe Food is a nonprofit organization that provides allergy-friendly foods to food pantries across the United States. Securing Safe Food works closely with their network of food pantries to ensure that allergen-safe foods reach food allergy families.
Food allergy education
AllergyStrong provides patient education and advocacy to better assist low-income food allergy patients and caregivers, as well as those who lack reliable access to food. The nonprofit works with community partners and groups to increase access to food, but also healthcare and medications. AllergyStrong also focuses on at-risk communities, including during times of humanitarian crises.
FOODiversity connects food allergy patients and families with consistent and reliable food resources, educational materials and support. For people with food allergy to thrive, resources are critical. The organization uses distribution channels already in place in communities, such as food pantries, universities, school nurses and physicians.
What are some practical tips to help food allergy families get more safe food on their tables?
If you are struggling to pay for allergen-free groceries, there are some strategies and tips you can consider to help you better afford these foods. Some of these suggestions may not work for people without a car or who live in areas where there is limited access to grocery stores. Pick and choose, find out what works for you and your budget, and stick with it!
Visit your local food pantry
When visiting your local food pantry, alert the staff to your allergens and ask for help finding safe foods. Some food pantries separate foods based on the allergen. Others may require you to come on certain days to get allergen-safe foods. If you call in advance and explain your family’s dietary needs, some food pantries will hold items for you.
Start planning meals for the week or month ahead
When you plan your meals ahead of time, you can identify foods you need and make sure they fit your budget. Create a meal plan and shopping list – and stick to it! This can help you avoid over-buying, especially produce that can go bad if you don’t eat it right away.
Talk with your doctor or consult a nutritionist to ensure you create a healthy meal plan that meets nutritional needs. You can also find allergy-safe allergy-safe meal plans on the internet.
Set a food allergy budget
Look at your overall finances and map out a food allergy meal plan that accounts for what you know you can afford each week and each month. Buying allergy-safe foods is paramount, and these can sometimes be pricey, but they do not have to break your budget. Find ways to save by using coupons or buying in bulk.
Be sure to include in your overall budget the out-of-pocket cost of epinephrine auto-injectors prescribed by your primary care doctor or allergist.
Buy allergen-free generic or store brands
Sometimes all you need to do is call the company to ask about whether their store brand is safe for the allergens you manage.
Make your own meals
Cooking from scratch and making your own meals is both a safer and cheaper way to manage an allergen-free diet. It’s also healthier for your diet.
Clip coupons and look for deals
Allergy-friendly packaged foods are often not on sale, but when they are, they are often worth stocking up on if it makes sense for your budget. Also, sign up for store loyalty cards. These often offer significant discounts on popular foods.
Many food allergy families visit multiple grocery stores to get the foods at the best prices. Grab free samples when stores offer them.
Keep in mind that going to multiple grocery stores may have a hidden cost – using up gas in your vehicle.
Large online retailers and grocery store chains are increasingly offering allergy-friendly foods. Some will even shop for you or deliver to you. In addition, a host of specialty websites devoted to helping food allergy families and offering specialty foods are emerging online.
Just like at a grocery store, when shopping online it may benefit you to either only buy specialty foods on sale or find a website that has a great bulk price.
Shopping online can also save you gas money – especially if you go to multiple grocery stores,
Find ways to expand food options with safe substitutions
Sometimes simple substitutions – there are many options for foods containing egg or dairy – are less expensive than their “free-from” counterparts.
Find nutritionally equivalent foods
Many people with food allergies have a restricted diet. Depending on the allergen, this can lead to a nutritional deficiency. Signs of a nutritional deficiency include frequent illnesses, low energy, weight loss or poor weight gain or growth in children.
What can you do to ensure a nutritious diet while avoiding your food allergen? Be sure to eat a nutrient-rich diet that includes fruits, vegetables, meat and seafood, grains (excluding wheat) and legumes (excluding peanuts).
Meat and seafood can be expensive. Consider replacements for meat and seafood that can add protein to your family’s diet without the high cost of animal protein. A plant-based diet that includes leafy greens can serve as an excellent source for calcium and protein.
Consult with a nutritionist to develop a nutritious meal plan for you and your family.
Buy allergen-safe foods in bulk
Buying in bulk can help you save long-term but don’t let it break your budget.
Get involved in a community garden
Is there a community garden in your area? If so, you can rent a small plot of land in a shared space and grow your own fruits and vegetables. This can be a money-saver, yield healthy produce for food-insecure families, and it’s educational for children, too.
Select foods yourself rather than choosing delivery or pickup
For many people, it can be important to shop in person rather than using a delivery or pick-up service. In-person shopping allows you time to read food labels, check for allergens, and find a safe alternative if needed. It can also help families choose food brands that fit their budget. Learn more about what to look for when reading a food label.
Ask other food allergy families for suggestions
Get together with other food allergy families in your community to combine resources for food. Share tips. If getting to a grocery store or food pantry is a burden, consider a carpool with other food allergy families.
Maintain a healthy relationship with food
What about people with food allergies who struggle with variety or lack access to healthy foods? One thing families can do is encourage a healthy relationship with food. Doing so can lead to good eating habits, especially among children, and improve nutrition. It can also help reduce healthcare costs.
- Go to the grocery store together as a family so children understand how to shop for healthy foods such as fresh produce.
- Encourage children to read food labels and teach them to identify their allergens.
- Invite children into the kitchen so they learn what it takes to cook their favorite allergen-safe meal.
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Don Bukstein, MD, FACAAI, is a board-certified allergist and immunologist and pediatric pulmonologist. He serves as Medical Director for Allergy & Asthma Network. Dr. Bukstein also volunteers at a Medicaid clinic in inner city Milwaukee. He is the former Director of Allergy and Asthma Research at Dean Medical Center in Madison, Wisconsin.