Food Allergies and Food Stamps

This is the hardest post I've ever written.

You see, I recently became aware of Food Bloggers Against Hunger, an event aimed at combating hunger in the United States. One of the key objectives is to increase support for the federal SNAP (food stamp) program, which is at risk for significant cuts during the current sequester and budget negotiations. This cause is a little more personal to me than I care to admit.

I rarely mention it to anyone,  but my family has been on food stamps.

Let me start at the beginning. After our son was born, I went from working full time to part time. My husband continued to work full time. He and I managed to arrange our schedules so that we worked opposite hours from each other in order to keep our incredibly vulnerable child out of day care. My paycheck wasn't great and we rarely had time together, but we managed.

Then, two years ago, my husband lost his job at the company where he had worked for more than twenty years. Despite his eagerness to start at any job that would hire him, we decided that it would be far better for us in the long term if he took advantage of one of the educational programs available to him. So began the long eighteen months where we subsisted on my meager paycheck, unemployment benefits, lots of help from our families and food stamps.

Despite my embarrassment and my efforts to discretely hold my EBT card so that the person behind me in checkout couldn't see it, despite the horrible self awareness of my weight, which has always been a problem for me, as I faced the cashier, despite my internal judgement of every item in my cart while it was being scanned ("Is it healthy? Is it cheap?"), I am incredibly grateful for food stamps.

Grocery shopping with food allergies is notoriously expensive. For example, peanut butter usually runs about $3 a jar. (I think.) We use Sunbutter, a sunflower seed spread that costs nearly $6 a jar. Similarly, all of the dairy substitutes are typically double the price of their counterparts. Coconut yogurt is $3 per 6 oz cup. Daiya vegan "cheese" shreds are $6 for an 8 oz bag. Thank goodness we don't need to shop in the gluten free aisle, too!

Being restricted to certain expensive brands also means that the most of the strategies used by the couponing evangelists simply don't work for food allergy families. There is one brand of regular, wheat pasta that is safe for my son. So when the Barilla right next to it is BOGO with matching store and manufacturer's coupons to stack on it, it doesn't do me a bit of good, though I do take advantage of coupons and deals as best I can.

The real tragedy of food allergies and food insecurity is that families may take risks with their children's well being. I'm not talking about filling up on cheap starches and junk food instead of healthier foods, either. I am absolutely horrified to admit that during that period I once broke down and bought a cheaper margarine than the vegan Earth Balance we usually use. I believe with sale and coupons it was $.39 a tub. So I double checked a label to make sure it didn't have any dairy in it and grabbed half a dozen tubs. Unfortunately, I also grabbed one of the varieties which did contain a milk product. A week or two later at breakfast my son started to eat a bagel with margarine on it and then complained "My mouth itches."

That's right, my efforts to save money grocery shopping caused my son to have an anaphylactic reaction. We were able to control it with Benadryl, but I can't even describe the guilt I still feel.

My usual creativity in the kitchen, already fully exercised to accommodate my kiddo's food allergies, was stretched to the breaking point. Plus planning for sale and coupon shopping, along with home cooking to maximize money and nutrition, is a massive black hole which can suck up every available minute.

By the way, the vast majority of adults receiving food stamps are employed, often at more than one job, but earn less than the federal poverty level. Most of them simply don't have the time to clip coupons and make their own stock.

Here's one of the meals I came up with during that period. Although I'm perfectly happy eating vegetarian, both my husband and son prefer to eat meat. The turkey bacon takes care of their carnivorous cravings, the spinach provides nutrition (and they go on sale regularly, this week both are buy one get one free) while the potatoes at $.99 a pound are cheap and filling.

Twice Baked Stuffed Potatoes

2 lbs baking potatoes (4 to 6 depending on size)
2 Tbs olive oil plus additional as needed
1 sweet onion, sliced
6 slices turkey bacon, cut crossways into quarter inch strips
9oz bag prewashed spinach
1/4 tsp ground mustard
1/4 tsp garlic powder
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 450°F. Scrub potatoes well, poke each a couple of times with a fork, and place directly on a middle rack in oven. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes until done.

While potatoes are baking, heat olive oil over medium in a large skillet. Saute onions until soft. Add in the turkey bacon and stir regularly until cooked through. Add spinach a few handfuls at a time and stir in until all of it is wilted. Mix in mustard and garlic. Turn off burner and allow pan to sit until potatoes are done baking.

Once potatoes have been removed from the oven, reduce temperature to 425°F. When cool enough to handle, cut them in half and scoop out the middles into the pan. Use a potato masher to combine the potatoes and the spinach mixture, then add salt and pepper to taste.

Arrange the skins on a foil lined baking pan. Divide the filling between the potatoes, smoothing if needed to make nice, round boats. Bake for 15 or 20 minutes, then serve.

If desired, top with sour cream or cheese, or non dairy substitutes.

Thank you for sticking with me through this incredibly personal post. I'd like to ask you to also please take a few minutes to tell your Congressional representatives the importance of continued funding for the SNAP and WIC programs. There is no reason why any child in this country should go hungry. Ever.

Update: The response to this post has been absolutely amazing and I am so grateful to all of you for your kind and encouraging words. I do feel, though, that I should probably clarify a few things that I left unsaid.

  • We are fine now. After finishing his program, my husband was able to find a job in his field. It's entry level, so he's not making as much as before, but he's working at a fantastic, growing company.
  • There was never any danger of us acually going hungry. Although I slashed every unnecesary item, from my diet soda to our Y membership, from our budget, things were never so tight that we faced a food shortage, and frankly, our wonderful, loving families would never have allowed it.
  • The worst thing about that time was the uncertainty. When we made the decision to sign my husband up for classes, we knew we were locking ourselves into a period of lower income, but being a poor student is a whole lot different when you have a child and a mortgage payment. The period after his program when he was looking for a job and we were counting the weeks until his unemployment ran out was simply terrifying.
Finally, I did miss one important point about children with food allergies who qualify for public assistance. Although I'm sure that my son could have received free or subsidized meals at school, there is absolutely no way he could ever safely eat cafeteria food. That's a huge gap in the safety net for food allergic kids, who already may have difficulty getting all the nutrition they need just because of dietary restrictions.

Thank you all again. I talk all the time about how wonderful the food allergy community is, but for this, this overwhelming show of support, I don't even have words.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this personal and oh-so important post. I had never thought about managing life with food allergies with the necessity of food stamps but now understand. You are brave and creative, resiliant and absolutely a wonderful parent, spouse and partner in the food allergy community.

Anonymous said...

You are such an inspiration. I recently found your site and I've learned so much...AND made some great meals for my son who has life threatening allergies. Thank you for sharing your stories, your experiences, and your great recipes. You should never be ashamed that you did the best you could for your family. (And as for the accidental margarine - I think we've all made that horrible mistake...we, the parents, who are so, so careful. I know we have and we weren't even trying to save pennies - just a simple mistake!)

Debi Tucker said...

Beautifully written. As a stay at home mom with a husband who works two jobs so I am able to look after our kids I know how hard it is to be frugal when shopping for food allergy restrictions. I admire you for accepting help when your family needed it and your courageousness in sharing your story.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for sharing your story. Part of my childhood our family was on food stamps as well as going to the food bank to have food on the table, and today with a allergic kid (severe peanut allergy), I have often thought, "what if?"

You have a very unique niche here. Not only feeding and caring for an allergic kid but doing so on an extremely tight budget. I would love to hear more about your strategies not just from an allergy standpoint but the budgeting side and menu ideas too. If you have a blog, I would love to subscribe.

One of the things I like to do, and challenge, others to do as well, is when there are food drives to donate foods that are allergy friendly. There are so many people struggling for many different reasons and throwing food allergies on top of that pile can mean the difference of heat or power for some people. My heart goes out to you and your family, and I hope to hear more great ideas from you in the future.

Thank you again for you story & recipe. I'm going to give it a try.

Sheila said...

Thank you for sharing your stories, your experiences, and your great recipes. I'm going to give it a try.

Libby said...

Guys...you guys, I got up and read your comments this morning and started crying. I don't even know what to say, but I have to go to work, so I'll come back and drip more on the keyboard later. Thank you.

Kathryn @ Mamacado said...

What a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing all that you've been through and are going through. And a great recipe!

A Sunflower Life said...

Thank you so much for being brave and sharing your story for such a good cause. The recipe looks wonderful...can't wait to try it!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post. Your honesty and clarity have illuminated a really critical part of the conversation about food insecurity. My entire family has life-threatening food allergies, and people often wonder why we are such avid supporters of our local food share and food banks.

THIS. This is why. Thank you so much for finding such eloquent words!

Anonymous said...

What a great post. Although I personally have not ever been on food stamps, this is very touching and personal. I don't think many people realize how difficult it is, and especially with allergies- it's far more complicated, time consuming and worrying. I appreciate you writing this post and sharing- so glad I'm also part of the posts yesterday to spread the word.

Maya Marcotte said...

You are so very brave for documenting such a personal issue and I commend you for putting yourself out there....so many of us with food allergies struggle with the stigma of government help, whether food stamps or medical and it shouldn't be that way. Society's standards financial stability do not necessarily apply to those of us who have severe food allergies because we all know how EXPENSIVE food, personal care products we are not allergic to as well as medical bills can be. We need to learn to let go of shame and unnecessary guilt over simply taking care of ourselves in the best ways we can.

Thank you for sharing this....and it is a pleasure to meet you.

Emily @ MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger said...

Providing meals for your family on SNAP benefits is hard enough, thinking about the added cost of food allergies is scary! Thank you so much for sharing your personal story with us.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your story. I too understand the shame that comes with having that food stamp card. I too try to hide my card when I go to use it. Having 1 child and myself with food allergies has caused our bill to go sky high. We have been dealing with my son's food allergies for 4 years, but mine are new within the last 2 months. My husband and I both work, but still can not make ends meet. I have gone back to school, so hopefully soon we will be able to stand on our own 2 feet. I love your posts. Thanks again for sharing.

Ralph Blunk said...

I also have the same fate when I was a child. My mom would buy food out of SNAP benefit and she ends up getting some food items with so much allergen for me. The Doctor told me that I have a Hive allergy. It's a scary sickness but I thank God it never came back after I reached 20.

Alisa said...

Libby, it's so wonderful that you've shared this. So many people are in the same boat as you - times are touch and restrictions don't make it any easier. You are such an amazing leader in the allergy community!

Emilia Robert said...

Thanks a lot for sharing your story and for sharing it so beautifully. You are a star. Besides your post, I love the recipes too.

Lynda Watson said...

I am greatly inspired by your story. The positive attitude and all the hard work is really amazing. I hope and pray the best for you and your family. Also, thanks for sharing all the tips that are very useful especially to every single family who are also in this kind of situation.

Ethan said...

Great Post! Thanks for sharing. The way you described everything was really great.

Sarah said...

My granddaughter has a nut allergy, which brought me to this site, and I ended up reading about your story. I'm certainly glad about your happy ending! ... Now I'm going to try your hot pocket recipe.

amhj76 said...

Thanks for this post. My 3rd child, who has type 1 diabetes, had a very sudden onset of food allergies while in the midst of dealing with ketoacidosis. My other 2 kids aleady have known food allergies. We'd just started implementing a lactose free diet last month. The change in cost was quite noticeable. So the thought of having to restrict our diets to more higher priced substitutes made me nervous.

I'm a single mom on food stamps. I work PT at a grocery store (helps me get a discount on store brand items). I'm also a student. My child support is limited & unenforceable (my ex-husband has a disabling illness). Stress is my middle name. It's comforting to see that someone was in a similiar situation (food allergies, food stamps, & limited time & income) was able to get through it. While my daughter's food allergy onset is too new to know her triggers, I will become a loyal follower of your blog & site. Thank you for being brave enough to share and encourage!

Jerry Simpson said...

Needing food stamps is a situation that most of us with run into to come close to at times in our lives. You did what was necessary for your family. Be proud and just push forward. BTW love the potatoe recipe :-)

Daisy A. said...

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Emma M. said...

Wow! what a blog i just love to read it,by reading it, i came to know that noone can't compromise with healthy food. Every one must provide healthy food to their children.Thanks a lot for sharing it.

John said...

Thanks for sharing your story. It's feels really inspiring. It's amazing how you cope with your financial issues and your son's allergies. I love that you wrote this story and shared it with us, thank you.

Fern said...

Thank you for sharing this personal post. Families facing food allergies have so many challenges as it is, good on you for spreading awareness of this failing in the system.

Emma M. said...

Life becomes tough when you don’t have enough money in your pocket and you are in a situation where you don’t have many choices. Food allergies are too bad, especially for those people who can’t afford to spend a huge amount on selected food items. So I really appreciate your hard work.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. I've enjoyed what I've read of your blog so far. My son now lives with allergies in Federal Way, WA. I've sent a link to your blog and hope he reads it.

Mama J said...

This post is nearly word-for-word exactly what I would write about the topic. My husband just finished school...then we found out his field has 100+ applicants per job. I have no idea how long this period of uncertainty will last and it's scary! One point that the debate against food stamps misses is that WE PAID for them. Back when my husband had a high-paying job, we paid into the system and we have every right to use it while we have need. Yet, I still feel shame at checkout.

Libby said...

Mama K, hang in there, I know how hard it is. Just want to let you know that my husband didn't find his job thru any of the job search sites/agencies/etc., rather word of mouth. No matter how embarrassing it is, tell EVERONE you know that your husband is looking for a job in whatever his field is. Good luck.

Anonymous said...