Emily Brown started the Food Equality Initiative to reinvent they way we think about food pantries.

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Emily Brown sitting outside in a yellow chair
Credit: Chuong Doan

As toddlers, Emily Brown's daughters were diagnosed with multiple food allergies. The exorbitant costs of allergen-free groceries caused Brown to seek food assistance. After waiting hours at her local Kansas City food bank, the only suitable items she found were two potatoes and a jar of salsa. "In that moment, I felt great despair, but I also knew we weren't alone," she says. Low-income families like hers deal with a double punch of problems—limited food bank offerings along with restrictive federal nutrition benefit policies (for instance, WIC, the USDA's nutrition program for women, infants and children, allows participants to purchase only bread that's whole-wheat). Of the 60,000 food pantries nationwide, only four are fully stocked with items reserved for people in need of allergy- and celiac-safe food.

What She Did

In 2014, Brown founded the Food Equality Initiative and went on to open the nation's first food pantry that exclusively serves families with food allergies in 2015. A combination of donated staples from food manufacturers and farmers, along with products purchased with locally raised funds, FEI provides over 200 options to those in the Kansas City area including fresh produce, sunflower butter and gluten-free bread. Clients with a doctor's referral select items through FEI's online portal, and their order is shipped directly to their door—for free. "We believe our model is the most effective for diet compliance and health because it tackles the stigma and limitations of a physical pantry," shares Brown.

Why It's Cool

So far, FEI has placed close to $1 million worth of allergy-safe food into clients' hands. Brown is also working to help children's hospitals in five regions, from Boston to Denver, launch their own FEI programs in 2022. Plus she's raising awareness about the disproportionate burden of food allergies on communities of color. (A study in Academic Pediatrics found Black children are 7% more likely to have food allergies than white children, and are more likely to experience a potentially life-threatening anaphylactic reaction.) Brown hopes data will drive policy change in food assistance programs, ensuring access to allergen-free foods for all: "Policy is one of the strongest vehicles for long-term change."

This article first appeared in EatingWell magazine, November 2021.