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The Real Cost of Food Allergies

food allergies are expensive

Photo Credit: Heather Neal

Last week one of my friends posted a link on Facebook to an article I couldn’t help but click on, not something I typically tend to do. It was called “Surviving Whole Foods” on Huffington Post. By the time I had finished reading (and cracking up), about 10 other friends had posted the same link. If you’ve ever shopped at Whole Foods, whether you love it or hate it, you can relate. One satirical comment in the middle of the article struck a nerve with me — and many of the commenters — about how you never hear about poor people with food allergies. At first I laughed, because it can be true. When you consider the fad-like trend of going gluten-free that’s swept Hollywood and has celebrities with no other nutritional background writing best-selling books, then yes, it’s funny. No poor person would intentionally not eat a certain food because a star on TV doesn’t eat it, especially if it costs more than the regular alternative.

But on the other hand, it’s very, very not funny. Poor people do have food allergies. When you brush aside the people having “allergies” and “intolerances” to follow a trend, for weight loss, or just because it’s the current “thing” to do, there are people that have their lives seriously impacted every single day by food, how it affects them, and how much it costs. I’m particularly sensitive to the issue as of late since I have a son with food allergies. Luckily his are nowhere near life-threatening, and I’m reminded to be grateful of that every single day, especially when I look away for a minute and the next thing I know he has his friends’ cheddar Goldfish cracker in his mouth. For parents of kids with more serious allergies, they can’t look away for a single second. Any moment could result in anaphylactic shock, a very real life or death situation with very, very little intervention time and a 30% fatality rate.

Aside from the very real and constant stress of being a food allergy mom or dad comes another indirect stress: money. A friend asked me the other day, “Isn’t it expensive to buy all those special foods?” I casually answered no, since I don’t buy a lot of “special” foods, I just diligently read labels and avoid brands or products with my sons’ allergens. But the more I thought about it, the more that was the wrong answer. I can easily look back through my grocery bills for the last nearly two years and see a huge difference. Not everything I buy is different or special, but I absolutely buy things based on the ingredient list and not by price. I can’t always get the store brand anymore and I can’t always buy the brand I have the coupon for. Unfortunately foods that are cheaper tend to have more fillers and additives, increasing the chances of containing an allergen. And if I want my son to be able to eat a snack that’s similar to everyone else in his class, sometimes I have to buy the $8 bag that has a third of the number of chips or crackers as the “normal” bag for five times the price. When you start piling allergies on top of each other, it gets harder and harder to stick with normal foods you can find in a normal grocery store. Sometimes you have to drive way out of your way to get to the store that sells the brands you need to buy, or you’re forced to order food online.

Not to mention the extra trips to the doctor and the medical supplies and medications we need to have on hand. Have you ever been to a pediatric allergist or gastroenterologist? It’s not the same friendly double digit co-pay (or lack thereof entirely) as your regular well-baby visit. They often have to be scheduled way in advance with little flexibility for changing appointment times. If a big meeting comes up at work, you’re S.O.L. The bill that follows a month or two later on top of the missed work time is like a knife twisting in your gut. You rarely have options for different brands of medications, meaning you don’t have options in cost either. You can’t opt not to get a medication either: your child’s life may very well depend on it.

Like I said, my son has very mild allergies. Yet we still have a steady rotation of doctors’ appointments, tests, and scary-sounding interventions like a rescue-inhaler. Thank goodness we don’t have to keep a steady supply of un-expired Epipens on hand. If you can’t hear the dollar signs “cha-chinging” in your head, let me spell it out for you. Better yet, let me let the Journal of American Medical Association Pediatrics spell it out for you: food allergies cost Americans a shocking $24.8 billion dollars per year. That’s around $4,184 dollars per child per year. Of that almost $25 billion, $20.5 billion was attributed to costs to the families; the other $4.3 billion was for direct medical costs. The cost of special diets alone was $1.7 billion. Not necessarily pocket change. The number is even more shocking when you consider food allergies affect about 8% of families —a number that has been steadily rising.

The study that determined this economic burden on food allergy families also looked outside the box at missed job opportunities, lost careers, decreased work productivity, and increased childcare costs. Ways to help decrease these costs are also under consideration. One way is to help schools be more prepared to treat allergic reactions. There’s even a bill in the Senate to help more schools stock epinephrine, a drug used to counteract a life-threatening allergic reaction, called The School Access To Emergency Epinephrine Act.

Back to that comment, “Poor people don’t have food allergies.” Well yes, they do. But how the heck do they afford it?

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