Zani lives just outside of Portland. Like any typical Oregonian, she loves being outside, shopping at her local farmers market, and eating fresh food. While all these things are ultimately good for pretty much everybody, Zani’s body did not have a choice in the matter.
About 5 years ago, Zani started to choke on almost every meal. “I couldn’t swallow, I had to go to the bathroom and make myself throw up my food, then try to finish my meal.” At first, she thought she was having these problems because she was taking too big of bites, so she became the world’s slowest eater, chewing her food into minuscule micro bites. But this was to no avail.
Finally, she decided to seek out medical advice. That is when Zani got diagnosed with Eosinophilic esophagitis more commonly known as EoE.
EoE is an immune system disease in which the white blood cells in your esophagus attach to food and allergens, causing your throat to become inflamed, making it difficult to swallow. These allergens align with the top 8. The most common treatments for EoE are over-the-counter pills for heartburn, prescribed steroids to reduce inflammation, and allergen avoidance. Zani found out these medications can be very expensive, not to mention she wasn’t thrilled about the idea of pumping her body full of chemicals. “If I follow a strict diet, I don’t need any medications.”
That means no more nuts, dairy, eggs, wheat, or soy. As this was already a huge shift in Zani’s life, she decided to go one step further and go vegan, for both her health and for the positive environmental impacts. This meant Zani’s shopping experience was about to shift drastically.
Grocery Shopping: Food Allergy + COVID-19
Just like she was the slowest eater at the table, she became the slowest shopper in the store. “I spend a fair amount of time reading labels.” Labels that oftentimes say may contain gluten, may contain nuts, or may contain milk. Sure these items may not have the allergen, but then again, they just might. It is a gamble she is not willing to take.
“People don’t understand the luxury of just picking something up and buying it. When I pull up to a gas station during a road trip, there are a lot of times where I read literally everything on the shelves and could not eat anything except for the apple that has probably been sitting out for 2 weeks.”
She found that buying dry, raw products in bulk was easier, safer, and more environmentally friendly. “I keep a checklist of my staples: rice, quinoa, lentils, beans, gluten-free oats, etc. These staples are accessible wherever you go.” She said that if that ever fails, at the end of the day, every store always has fresh fruits and veggies!
At the beginning of COVID-19, people started buying more and more raw products from Zani’s checklist off the shelves. Items like uncooked rice and beans were suddenly inaccessible. Zani’s gut reaction was: “Wait, those are mine! Usually there is a surplus of those and now they are gone!” All of a sudden, the non-perishable items Zani’s diet thrives on were unavailable.
In many ways, panic buying during the pandemic has given consumers a new perspective on shopping. Going to a grocery store does not always mean you will find everything you need. This is a common occurrence for people diagnosed with severe food allergies or EoE. Even if the stores are fully stocked, you are not guaranteed to find something you are able to eat.
Zani’s Shopping Tip
Zani’s recommendation is to check out more alternative shopping venues and ingredients. “People don’t realize how long a bag of uncooked beans lasts.”
Supporting your local farmer is really important, she says, and farmer’s markets are located outside in open-air spaces, which is great for social distancing. Not only is the food fresh, but you also know where it came from and who has touched it. A win-win situation for your body and your community.
How is FEI planning to help?
In order to make free-from food more accessible for those who need it, Food Equality Initiative is shifting away from in-person shopping. Stay tuned for how FEI is coming to an area near you.