Two potatoes. One jar of salsa.
That’s all Emily Brown had in her basket for her daughter with multiple food allergies that day at an Overland Park food pantry in the fall of 2013.
The costs of the allergy-safe foods that she could find on regular grocery store shelves had been crippling their budget on her husband’s social worker salary.
She’d already taken a humbling step to get federal assistance, but WIC, the special nutrition program for women, infants and children, didn’t support many of the foods she needed.
This was the moment that the idea for the now-1-year-old Food Equality Initiative special pantry at 8714 Antioch Road in Overland Park would fire up inside her.
Because the advice from someone at WIC — you can try looking in food pantries — had led to this spirit-crushing experience. After the tiring exercise of scouring the ingredients details on food packaging, eliminating those that could sicken or even kill her daughter, this is what she had left in her hands.
Two potatoes. One jar of salsa.
“But you got something,” the earnest and smiling pantry volunteer said. “Right?”
Within a year, Brown and co-founder Amy Goode had started the initiative and then opened their pantry in April 2015 — as far as they know, the first of its kind in the nation.
The fact that the special pantry got started and is still thriving after its first year is something of a minor miracle, said Karen Miller, a retired dietitian who serves as pantry manager.
She didn’t think there was any chance it would still be here, now having distributed some 12,350 pounds of food to roughly 20 regular client families — with plans to expand to a Jackson County pantry this summer.
When someone at New Haven Seventh-Day Adventist Church, where the pantry is housed, approached Miller to see if she might help with such a project, her response was: “Are you nuts?”
Miller’s husband has celiac disease — one of the major food allergy diseases that affect many of the children who need special diets. As a dietitian, she knew how difficult it would be to stock a free food pantry with the costly, harder-to-find products that population needs.
She agreed to help, she said. “But I told (the church) it was not possible.”
Brown knew there were many families like hers who needed help. Research is providing some clues just how many there are, she said.
A Johns Hopkins Children’s Center study estimated that one in 10 children in urban areas had one or more food allergies. A study out of Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital estimated that one in five families of children with food allergies are “food insecure,” meaning they often go hungry.
Lay those estimates over the Kansas City area children’s population and the families of 8,000 to 14,000 children may need help meeting their special nutrition needs.
Product donations from manufacturers, contributions from the Harvesters community food network and New Haven, and public donations have helped them get this far, Brown said.
On Wednesday, the Food Equity Initiative spoke out on how far the effort has come and how they need help to grow to try to meet the greater need. They are joining with the Community Assistance Council to add an allergy-safe food pantry at its offices in southeast Kansas City by the end of July.
They announced a fundraising bike ride with Spin Neopolitan Pizza at 6:15 p.m. May 23, starting at the restaurant at 6541 W. 119th St. in Overland Park.
They put out the call for help on the same afternoon that Jan DeMoure made her monthly 45-minute drive from Liberty to pick up safe groceries for the three of her four sons with food allergies.
Families that the pantry serves — by appointment only — need to have a medical recommendation and have income that falls below about $60,000 a year for a family of four.
DeMoure is a nursing student and her husband is a security supervisor at the Ford plant in Claycomo. They had already been managing a host of food allergy concerns with their sons when their 10-year-old in the past year was further diagnosed with celiac disease.
Suddenly they were looking at spending $20 a week just for bread. The same for a gallon of special milk. It was going to be too much. But by then, the Food Equality Initiative was up and running and known to the staff at Children’s Mercy Hospital. They gave her the phone number.
On DeMoure’s shopping day Wednesday, Miller was ready with the personalized shopping chart they have for all their families. It lists the options on the shelves that fit each child’s restrictions.
Miller goes through the same process that the families of children with allergies know very well. That means not only checking the details of product labels, but often calling manufacturers to ask whether otherwise safe foods were processed in the same facility as unsafe foods and risking cross-contamination.
It’s a vigilance DeMoure goes through, not just when shopping, but with family gatherings where food comes together, or with school events. They’re learning which restaurants have separate kitchens for allergy-safe food preparation and separate menus. Often phone calls are necessary.
Not surprisingly, DeMoure said, “we don’t eat out very often.”
All is safe here, though, at the pantry. “We’re blessed to have it,” she said.
She left with a shopping cart filled with goods and ingredients like safe flour they will use to bake bread, cookies, pizza crusts, pancakes ...
Beats two potatoes and salsa.