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A mother and daughter look at a grocery label while shopping.

A recipe for safety:

Making allergy-friendly food affordable and accessible for all

April 2, 2024 — 

Anyone that’s shopped for products free of common allergens like peanuts, eggs or milk knows they’re going to pay a premium.

For those buying specialty items to suit a preference, it’s a personal choice and they can take it or leave it. But for those living with food allergies that may result in severe or even potentially life-threatening reactions, there’s no way around the mark-up that’s attached to staying safe.

“Immediately prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, families managing food allergy reported excess grocery costs of approximately $200/month compared to families not managing food allergy,” said Dr. Jennifer Protudjer, associate professor of pediatrics and child health at Max Rady College of Medicine, Rady Faculty of Health Sciences.

Costs only got worse as the pandemic wore on, increasing an additional $100-$200/month compared to immediately prior to the pandemic, adding up to a hefty monthly grocery bill for these families that’s $300 to $400 more than families with no allergies.

Protjuder, recently awarded a grant of $100,000 over one year by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research – Institute of Circulatory and Respiratory Health and Canadian Institutes of Health Research – Institute of Infection and Immunity, is identifying ways to help rewrite the menu for those struggling to find healthy and affordable options.

“Our lab has been working with Harvest Manitoba on a few different projects,” she said. “This includes exploring which allergy-friendly foods are most needed by food banks across the country, what resources health-care professionals need to support families managing food allergy and food insecurity, and creating materials that help families understand and use medical information better.”

Currently, there are no national programs to support families managing food allergies.

“The Government of Canada has a medical claim for celiac disease, yet no such mechanism exists for food allergy,” she said.

And with inflation spiking food prices, many Canadians – with or without allergies – are struggling to keep their budgets in line. “This has created a perfect storm for food insecurity,” said Protudjer. “As a result, food bank use has increased substantially.”

While food assistance programs may provide some relief, allergy-friendly items still aren’t that common on food bank shelves. “Ultimately, this means families managing food allergy have no practical support to offset the increasing costs of food.”

For Protudjer, the issue of managing allergies isn’t just academic – it’s part of her everyday life. “I have substantial lived experience in food allergy,” she said, explaining that she’s had a fish and shellfish allergy since she was a baby. And she’s not alone – her family works around a total of seven allergies. “As a result, food shopping can be time consuming and costly, and nearly everything we eat is made from scratch,” she explained.

“As a researcher, I strive to use my voice to support families, guided by their own lived experiences and by evidence, to provide support for those who are also navigating food allergy,” said Protudjer, the Endowed Research Chair in Allergy, Asthma and the Environment at UM. “My goal is that they may thrive in a world in which food plays so many roles.”

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