I have had a food allergy for most of my life, and research shows that allergies to food are part of millions of people’s lives. It is estimated that 1-10% of people have a food hypersensitivity, which equates to approximately 11-26 million people in Europe and 240-550 million people globally. A food allergy not only limits which foods people can eat but it can also increase food insecurity.
Food security, according to the World Food Programme, is when a person has availability and adequate access at all times to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a health and active life. Therefore, food insecurity is when a person lacks at least one of these components. People with allergies can experience food insecurity especially through lack of availability, access or safe food.
Ask anyone with a food allergy and they will tell you that finding allergy friendly food can be incredibly difficult. For example, research has shown that 56.5% of people with Coeliac disease have difficulty finding gluten-free food whilst eating out, and 24% had difficulty finding appropriate food when shopping. The lack of availability of appropriate food can be especially prevalent when eating out, but the availability of food in shops is more likely to impact on food security. In my experience, smaller supermarkets tend not to be as allergy friendly, as they have less choice and available options tend to be more expensive. So, in order to get better food I need to travel to bigger shops. However, the inability to travel to bigger shops can cause the lack of availability of appropriate food so increase food insecurity.
One of the main things that affects access to food is how expensive food is. Research from the US has shown that families in the US with food allergies have approximately $4,184 extra expenditure per child annually. Some of these costs are due to medical treatment, but excluding this it still cost to US families $20.5 billion a year. My mother has Coeliac disease and at times we struggle with how expensive gluten-free options are. I also can have difficulty affording my own milk free alternatives. To figure out just how much more expensive ‘free-from’ food is I went online shopping on Tesco’s supermarket website, as in my experience it is the best supermarket for shopping with allergies. I then searched for the cheapest version of the ‘normal’ and free-from alternative of various ‘staples’ and calculated how much more expensive the free from version is.
On average, these ‘free-from’ food alternatives are 4.7 times more expensive. The high cost of these foods means that people with allergies may struggle to afford enough safe, nutritious food which means that they are more likely to be food insecure.
Food allergies can often be life threatening. Food induced anaphylactic reactions result in 150 deaths each year in the US and in the UK 8% of children and 2% of adults have at least one life threatening food allergy. Food allergies have gained a lot of media attention recently since the heart-breaking death of a 15-year-old girl who died after eating a falsely labelled sandwich. This incident has resulted in an outcry from the public for better labelling of food products to help protect people with allergies, including a petition to the UK government to improve allergen labelling. This is an example of how the current food system, especially establishments that serve food, is failing to keep people with allergies safe, so is adding to their food insecurity.
Solutions for food insecurity
There are many initiatives to try and help people that experience food insecurity. One of the biggest examples is food banks. The use of food banks is increasing – from 61,000 in 2010/11 to 1.18 million in 2016/17 in the UK. Food banks provide an amazing service to help people who struggle to get enough food, but people with allergies can find the foods they need are not readily available. This problem was so prevalent in the US that it led to the founding of an initiative called the Food Equality Initiative (FEI). It was started in 2015 and is the first US allergy friendly food pantry. The FEI distributed over 18,000 pounds of food between October 2015 and September 2016 which shows how needed allergy friendly food initiatives are needed.
One intervention in England is that people with a diagnosis of Coeliac disease are able to get some staple foods on NHS prescription, and 80% of people with the condition use this service. This service is being cut in some NHS trusts due to budget issues but this type of help is not only limited to England. Canada gives people with Coeliac disease tax reductions to help with the additional cost of gluten-free food and in Italy people are given a monthly cash allowance. This indicates that governments across the globe recognise that food is more expensive for some people with allergies and that they sometimes need help to ensure their food security.
Food insecurity can affect people with allergies due to lack of availability of suitable food, the increased price of allergy friendly food and the potentially fatal effects of unsafe food. Governments and charities need to make more of an effort to include considerations for food allergies in their interventions, as well as ensuring food labelling keeps people with allergies safe.