Well-Being Prevention & Cures

People with food allergies face extra risk during coronavirus pandemic

empty grocery shelves during coronavirus pandemic
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Story at a glance

  • Many groceries shelves are bare as people stock up on essentials in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • This can make it harder for those with special diets to find what they need.
  • Advocacy groups and grocers are working to improve communication and transparency about food shipments.

Shoppers clearing out grocery stores to stock up and isolate due to COVID-19 concerns can make a challenging situation even more difficult for people with life-threatening food allergies or special dietary needs.

The few safe foods those with allergies depend on may now be unavailable or sold out.

With empty shelves seen at groceries nationwide, many people feel fortunate to snag the only jar of peanut butter left on the shelf or that last carton of milk. But even if they’re hungry or thirsty, such products are not options for those with life-threatening food allergies.

These items could cause an anaphylactic reaction, a trip to the emergency room and even death.

“The 32 million Americans living with food allergies have unique needs when it comes to everyday life including something as seemingly simple as grocery shopping,” says Dr. Tom Casale, Chief Medical Advisor for Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE).

“These needs are understandably exacerbated during times of crisis,” says Casale. “We encourage everyone to practice moderation when it comes to shopping for food for their families in order to ensure everyone has what they need to stay well-nourished and healthy. These are challenging times, and it’s important that we use this moment to learn and work together to get through it.”

Richmond, Virginia mom Tiffany Glass Ferreira, whose son is allergic to eggs, milk and nuts, understands the challenges. “We can’t just eat what’s left if it’s not safe for us. It’s not about preference; it’s really food safety,” she says.

Ferreira’s son is on a restricted diet and depends on limited items that won’t cause an allergic reaction. “I feared a shortage of those staple items, and substitutions aren’t safe,” she says.

Ferreira, a professional arts educator, is also active in educating the public about food allergies. Her family was present when then Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed House Bill 2090 into law in 2015, which mandated food allergy training at Virginia restaurants.

The eight main allergens include: Milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soy. Those who are allergic to these and many other foods depend on a supply of alternative safe foods for nutrition.

Ferreira’s daughter also has special dietary needs. “I was especially anxious about COVID-19 because my daughter has type 1- diabetes and celiac disease. We rely on specific meal plans to keep her blood sugar steady, and steady blood sugar is very important for her overall health,” says Ferreira. “I’m reassured by the continued reports that food will remain available, and we’ll have access to grocery stores, but it’s still a terrifying situation.”

Ferreira is thankful for one helpful grocer. “Our local grocery store [Good Foods Grocery] has shared reassuring messages online with information about food shipments. For me, it’s easier to navigate a small business than a giant retail grocery store,” Ferreira says.

The novel coronavirus has presented new challenges and uncertainty, says CEO of FARE Lisa Gable, who is offering FARE’s continued support for those with food allergies. “FARE continues to be dedicated to its mission and to the food allergy community and is working to share useful information through online resources and virtual fellowship,” says Gable.

FARE’s website urges planning and preparedness as vital in case of a shelter-in-place order due to COVID-19.

“There are a few things that families can do to keep loved ones safe and healthy; this includes making sure your family has an emergency plan, as well as a supply kit with important materials like shelf-stable food products, hygiene necessities and medical products, which of course includes epinephrine auto-injectors, inhalers and the like,” Gable says.

Casale offers this advice for everyone: “COVID-19 is a challenge for all Americans, whether they’re living with food allergies or not, and while we know that this disease can be especially threatening for those with respiratory issues or chronic medical conditions, the recommendations for how to stay healthy are the same for everyone: practice social distancing to slow the spread of the virus, wash your hands often, and avoid touching your face.”