Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Personal Struggle And Call To Action

This is one of the hardest post I've ever written. I apologize for the length, but this has been on my heart for a while.

 It is deeply personal. Only my close family and friends know what I'm about to share. It's not something I share often, but my family and I receive assistance from the federal WIC program.

Let me start at the beginning. After my daughter Catherine was born in 2011, my husband and I planned for me to stay home for at least a year to nurse our daughter before returning to my job as a preschool teacher. We were not rich, but we were making it. With frugal living, support from family, and our savings, we were getting by. At eleven months, I contacted my director about going back part time after I weened Catherine. Everything changed when at just over a year, Catherine was diagnosed with multiple food allergies (peanut,wheat,eggs,milk, and soy). You can read about our diagnosis in this post.

Suddenly our food budget sky rocketed as we had to purchase specialty foods to feed our daughter. No longer could we do most of our shopping at Aldi, a discount grocery store. Now we were forced to make weekly trips to Whole Foods, and Hyvee to purchase safe healthy food. If you have ever had to purchase alternative food, then you know how expensive it can be. The foods I buy cost 2-4 times as much. The bread is 3 times alone. Gluten-free pastas and bread, Sunbutter, and Daiya cheese all cost almost twice the amount of regular dairy, wheat, and peanut products. Add egg- free and soy-free to the mix and now almost every food item and even some personal hygiene products have to be name brand or specialty items.   Not only did our food budget increase, but our income decreased, as it was no longer feasible for me to work outside the home and send Catherine to day care. Let's face it, it's easy to go broke buying groceries. Things were REALLY tight financially, but by the grace of God we were still able to manage. 

Then, last July, I discovered we were expecting our second child. Children are a blessing and the Bible says they are a heritage from the Lord. We were thrilled, but somewhat fearful of how we would survive with another mouth to feed. My husband is employed as a social worker with the Sate of Kansas. He loves his job and the satisfaction he gets from helping people can not be measured. However, despite how hard he works, there has been no raise in the last five years. At this point, we were forced to sign up for WIC benefits.

I must say I am very thankful for the benefits we receive from WIC. Each month we are able to purchase extra fruits and vegetables, juice, corn tortillas, and beans. However, due to Catherine's food allergies, we are unable to fully participate in the supplemental food program. While soy milk and amino-acid based infant formulas are available for purchase, rice and almond milk are not available.  Participants with no food allergies receive milk,wheat bread, peanut butter, cheese, and eggs. Although the alternative cheeses, breads, milks, and seed butters listed above exists, they are not offered for people and children who suffer from multiple food allergies and other medical conditions that require a special diet. Many of these alternatives offer comparative nutritional value.

The WIC program states its mission is to, " safeguard the health of low income women, infants, and children up to age 5 who are at nutritional risk by providing nutritious foods to supplement their diets." The rigidity of the WIC program guidelines seem to discriminate and hurt the very population they seek to serve, those most at risk for nutritional risk due to dietary restrictions.  I don't want to bash the WIC program, but I am sharing my experience to bring awareness to the huge gap in the safety net for low income people who suffer with multiple food allergies and dietary restrictions. In addition to the challenge of not being able to purchase the specialty food items with my WIC vouchers, there is the problem of living in a food desert. Most of the specialty items my family and I purchase to keep my daughter safe are not available for purchase in my county. That's right, I drive to the neighboring county to purchase safe and healthy food.

The ineffectiveness of the WIC program is just one hole in the gap. Free subsidized meals at schools can be a challenge for food allergic children to access as well as assistance from local food banks. Not only are specialty items rarely found at the food bank, but there is also a high risk of cross contamination. After calling my local food bank, Harvesters, I discovered all of the products were covered in wheat flour dust, as they open large packages of wheat flour and repackage them in their facility. There is also the risk of receiving items that have been donated that are not labeled properly, increasing the possibility of a severe reaction.

Facing food insecurity is a challenge alone, but adding life threatening food allergies and it is on another level. 1 and 4 Americans receive some type of food subsidy from the federal government. According to the USDA website, over 7 million, 0-5 yrs received WIC benefits in the fiscal year 2010. If 1 and 13 children has a food allergy, that would translate into 538,000 kids not receiving proper nutrition via the WIC program depending on their allergy/allergies. Multiple studies have shown that children with dairy and/or multiple food allergies are smaller in size than their non-allergic peers. Statistically, children with food allergies are in higher income brackets, however new research suggest that minorities and low income children are under diagnosed due to a lack of access to health care, and are actually 2-4 times likely to have food allergies, than their Caucasian counterparts. Even if half of these kids has a food allergy, that is still a quarter of a million kids not adequately being served by WIC. That is way too many.

Please join me and other concerned community members in the Food Equality Initiative, as we seek to educate and bring better access to safe, healthy foods to low income families across our nation. . 

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