KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Kansas City area is home to a new food pantry that aims to help lower-income people with food allergies deal with the costs of specialty foods they can safely eat.
The ReNewed Health Food Pantry opened in Overland Park, Kansas, about a year ago, the brainchild of Emily Brown and a friend; they also started a nonprofit to help low-income residents with food allergies. Brown believes it was the first such pantry in the U.S., and a similar one has since opened near Philadelphia. Brown also plans to help open another allergen-free pantry later this year in Missouri.
For Brown, it was personal. Her young daughter is allergic to milk, eggs, wheat, soy and peanuts, and the specialty food she could eat — a $6.99 loaf of gluten-free bread, for example — pushed the family's budget "through the roof" and eventually contributed to their decision to seek federal food assistance, the former preschool teacher said. But the allergen-free food options in the federal Women, Infants and Children assistance program (corn tortillas instead of bread, and rice instead of pasta) were less than ideal.
"I was really just kind of disappointed to discover that the assistance that I needed wasn't there either," Brown said. Her daughter is among about 15 million people in the U.S. that the national advocacy group Food Allergy Research and Education estimates have food allergies. That includes about one in every 13 children, according to FARE.
Low-income families with children with allergies spend more than twice as much on visits to emergency rooms and hospitals than mid- to high-income families, recent research from Northwestern University found. And about 40 percent of those children surveyed also reported experiencing life-threatening reactions to food, such as trouble breathing and a drop in blood pressure.
"The fact that they were able to open up a food pantry for kids who can't afford the special foods for food allergies — incredible," said Dr. Ruchi Gupta, an associate professor of pediatrics who led the Northwestern study, which was published in April. Until there are treatments for food allergies beyond prevention, Gupta said "the bottom line is we have to do everything we can to help keep these kids safe. And it's not asking a lot."
Food allergies have helped spur the multibillion-dollar allergen-free food industry, but Gupta would like to see regular grocery stores with one aisle of lower-priced allergen-free foods.
The ReNewed Health Food Pantry, which opens once a week by appointment in an Overland Park, Kansas, church, has so far provided more than 12,000 pounds of allergen-free food free of charge to about 20 families. Provisions, which include gluten-free breads and alternatives to dairy, egg and peanut products, are largely provided from manufacturer donations, food drives and other contributions. Clients must have a doctor's order saying the allergen-free foods are medically necessary and show their income is at or below 250 percent of the poverty level, Brown said.
Brown, who recently addressed the annual conference of the nonprofit National WIC Association, has been advocating for the agency to make some allergy-free adjustments.
"I always say we could not have existed 10 years ago because the market wasn't there," Brown said. "The free-from food market I think is like a $23-billion industry. ... Now is the time to kind of look and think about the least among us."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the WIC program, said WIC serves a large population and has about 8 million participants each month, including 49 percent of all infants in the U.S.
The USDA also said it doesn't know how many WIC participants have food allergies, nor does it require state or local agencies that administer WIC to provide allergen-free alternatives. But if a WIC participant has food allergies, local agencies may help devise a food package that could include alternatives like dried beans as a substitute for peanut butter or a soy beverage to replace milk, the USDA said. WIC also has special infant formulas and medical foods for infants who require them.
Jan DeMoure, a nursing student from Liberty who has three children with food allergies, has been a client of the ReNewed pantry since October 2015. She estimates she gets about $100 worth of food each month.
"Without the pantry, we would probably be a little hungry," she said.