My name is Tonya Conway and I am the Health Coordinator at Food Equality Initiative. This past week I did FEI’s Safe N’ Free Challenge for 5 days to recognize May as National Celiac Disease and Food Allergy Awareness Month.

Here are the rules I tried to follow:

  1. Each day, you’ll have a budget of $4.50 for all food and beverages, the average SNAP benefit.
  2. Follow a diet that is gluten-free.
  3. Follow a diet that is free-from one or more of the top 8 common allergens. (I followed a diet that was free-from dairy.)

Even though I knew that attempting the challenge would without a doubt be a difficult quest, I also knew that it would give me a firsthand glimpse at the many barriers that hinder the management of a food allergy or celiac disease diagnosis when confined to a low budget. As most would probably agree, $4.50 a day is not enough money to afford regular, nutritional, culturally-relevant meals. When you add special dietary needs to this already strained situation, it truly becomes a lifestyle of choice and sacrifice. It is unjust that anyone in a developed country such as the United States has to choose between going hungry or eating food that will make them sick (whether it be an allergic reaction from ingesting food that contains an allergen or a diet-related disease such as Type II diabetes which can be a long-term result of eating a diet mainly consisting of inexpensive, processed foods).

Why I decided to do the Safe N’ Free SNAP Challenge

I decided to do the Safe N’ Free SNAP Challenge because I wanted to understand the issue of free-from food access on a more personal level. Although I work for FEI, I am not allergic to any of the top 8 common allergens nor do I have celiac disease. There are many disadvantages and issues that arise when attempting to eat a diet free from common allergens. But during the challenge, these dilemmas that I had discussed hypothetically many times before took on a whole new context. Normal activities involving food (such as eating a granola bar at your desk to hold you over till lunch) suddenly required more thought, energy, and preparation than they had before.

How it went:

Eating free-from on a SNAP budget is not easy.
My go-to meal during the challenge: The Veggie Omelet (feat. Hot sauce).

I began to realize how much I depended on food for emotional stability. During the week of the challenge, I started to view the activity of eating as an obstacle for my mind and body whereas I had previously viewed it as a reward. With a tight budget and limited food options, every choice I made had to be strategic. Since I am a competitive person, I enjoyed trying to navigate these hurdles the first couple days of the challenge. But as the week went on, responsibilities at work and home did not cease just so I could spend hours a day trying to plan and prepare my meals. The time I needed to manage my free-from diet threatened to replace the block of time I usually reserved for myself to relax and enjoy my evenings after work.

Although I believe I created a decent grocery list for the challenge, I was not ready for the amount of foresight and time-management needed to prepare 2-3 gluten-free, dairy-free meals a day. I had bought plenty of food items for the week, but I did not spend enough time finding allergen-free recipes or meal-prepping for when I wouldn’t have time to cook. Overwhelmed, there were three days that week when I didn’t make lunch at all and instead, settled for a light snack in the morning and ate my only meal at dinnertime. It was on those days that I was very glad that my set of circumstances was only temporary. I had a limited number of choices I could make, and it seemed that every pathway available still required that I make some sort of sacrifice; whether that sacrifice be my time, budget, preferred food choice, a healthy food choice, or a food choice altogether.

I have a thorough respect for people who have adhered to an allergen-free diet or managed one in the role of caregiver. The amount of lifestyle changes and adjustments needed to successfully manage a diet-treated illness is quite the challenge, to say the least. Avoiding dairy was more difficult for me than avoiding gluten because I felt that “gluten-free” was often explicitly stated on labels whereas fewer products boasted a “dairy-free” designation. There were multiple times I ate food that I later realized contained dairy. I also struggled with the financial part of the challenge; I was not able to follow the $4.50 daily food budget and instead, spent closer to $10-$11 a day.

Chopped onions, cilantro, and bell peppers for my eggs.

Adherence to diet is the only proven treatment for food allergies and celiac disease. I am proud to work for FEI and be a part of solutions for those trying to manage their health through diet. Clients typically leave the Food Equality Initiative prescription pantry with more than $100 worth of food each month. This way, people living with diet-treated illnesses have more choices and aren’t forced to make as many sacrifices. Although following a special diet may be difficult, it is possible with assistance, resources, and education. I encourage you to accept the Safe N’ Free SNAP challenge too so more awareness can be brought to the challenges that exist for so many with food allergies and celiac disease.

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