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Interview with Emily Brown On Addressing Racial Disparities In Food Allergies

Mission MightyMe Co-founder Catherine Mitchell Jaxon spoke with food allergy advocate and activist Emily Brown about her work to eliminate the economic and racial disparities in food allergies. 

February is Black History Month and we'd like to introduce you to a Black History Maker in the world of food allergies and health equity - Emily Brown.

Emily is the founder of The Food Equality Initiative and The Seven Percent Fund. Her organization is on a mission to eliminate economic and racial disparities in food allergies, which disproportionately impact communities of color.

Emily experienced this first-hand with her own daughter and decided to turn her family's personal struggle into an opportunity to help others.

What is the mission of the Food Equality Initiative?

The Food Equality Initiative has a mission to improve health and end hunger in individuals who must eliminate common foods from their diet to maintain health and wellness. We do this through three main mission pillars. 1) Increasing access to safe "free-from" foods, 2) Providing nutrition and disease state information that is culturally competent, 3) Advocacy for access through federal nutrition programs.

What personal experience led you to start the Food Equality Initiative?

My work at Food Equality Initiative was born from my family's personal experience with food allergies and food insecurity. After my oldest daughter was diagnosed with multiple food allergies, we found it difficult to access affordable foods to meet her prescribed diet. After enrolling in the WIC program and finding few resources, I turned to a local food pantry. After waiting over two hours, the only safe foods available for my family was 2 potatoes and a jar of salsa. That is when I realized the significant gap in our social safety net for individuals who must eliminate common foods for their health and wellness. All of our work is centered in health equity. Ultimately we are working to reduce the racial and economic disparities that drive poor health outcomes.

Do federal assistance programs today cover allergen-free foods or allergy prevention foods that contain allergens for early introduction?

The Special Women, Infant, and Children's Supplemental Nutrition Program (WIC) provides limited substitutions for individuals with food allergies. However the program has really strict brand and quantity restrictions. For instance, soy milk is the only dairy alternative available. SNAP, formally known as food stamps provides families with a monthly stipend to purchase food. The challenge with this program is that while foods free from common allergens cost 2-4 times more as foods that contain common allergens, participants with food allergies or celiac disease do not get an increased benefit. The funds just don't go as far.

How has the pandemic impacted access to safe foods for food allergy families?

At the beginning of the pandemic we saw supply chain disruption and pandemic panic purchasing that left shelves bare for families with food allergies. Add the additional economic impact of the pandemic and we now have an increased population that is dependent upon the social safety net to find their next meal. The challenge is that while there are 60,000 food pantries and soup kitchens across the country, only 4 consistently provide allergy friendly foods to clients. Add in pandemic protocols that include pre-packed boxes and reduced volunteer staff, it is now even more difficult to find safe food in the charitable food system. New federal programs, such as the Farmers to Families program, developed as a response to the pandemic have provided weekly access to fresh produce in communities across the country. 

How are low income and minority children impacted differently by food allergies?

While food allergy has long been considered a condition that primarily impacts white children, we now know that like other allergic diseases it disproportionately impacts communities of color. New research not only demonstrates the increased prevalence of food allergy in the black community, but also shows the disparity in cost. While low income patients spend 2.5x more on emergency care, they are more likely to spend less on safe foods, specialty care and medication. All of this drives disparities in health outcomes and quality of life.

What is the Seven Percent Fund and what inspired you to create it?

I was inspired by the recent publication in Academic Pediatrics stated, "black children were 7% more likely to have food allergies than white children." Through the Fund and Coalition we will harness the power of community to educate and raise awareness of the racial and economic disparities, expand the FEI direct-to-door model to communities of color with significant food allergy, and prioritize research and advocacy efforts to make system changes.

How can people support your efforts?

You can join the 7% Fund and Coalition. Together we are working to drive awareness to the racial and economic disparities in food allergy and harnessing the power of the community to eliminate these disparities by 2030. We also have volunteer opportunities available from board and committee service and engagement in advocacy activities.

To learn more about the Food Equality Initiative, visit www.foodequalityinitiative.org and on social media @foodequality.