Earlier this week, my friend Rebecca mentioned to me that she could not imagine living on $21 per week because of her family's special dietary needs. "Wheat and dairy are cheap," she pointed out, but both will make members of her family quiet ill. "I don't think the family would agree to live on rice and beans." I told Rebecca that I have been working on a post about this topic, and here it is.
I knew going into the SNAP Challenge that I am lucky because I can, and will, eat almost anything. I have done various diets for various reasons over time: vegetarian, low/no dairy, gluten-free vegan, and so on. Now I seem to be happiest, and healthies, as an omnivore. Having been on the more limited diets, I know what an additional cost it is to buy rice or potato noodles, grain- or nut-based milks (if you're not allergic to nuts also), and so on. As Rebecca said, you can live on rice and beans and potatoes only so much - meat is hard to come by on the SNAP allowance.
I am also reminded of this because Passover is coming, and there are racks at the grocery filled with the special foods that Jewish people must eat during this holiday. Kosher foods are, as a rule, not cheap, and Kosher-for-Passover foods are even more expensive. Many places have a kosher food pantry, but getting donations before the holiday is probably tricky.
For people who require a special diet just to survive, there are few options. Food banks that cater to special diets are very rare. There is information that you can deduct the difference between what special-diet foods cost, and what the regular equivalent would be, but you still have to buy the food in the first place. I have read articles where a parent tells the writer that they have to make a decision whether to buy the food for one person who cannot eat gluten or dairy or whatever, or buy food for the whole family and the substance-intolerant person has to suffer. Since some of these problems can lead to more than just pain and illness, but can affect brain function and major organs, it's not a simple problem. It's not like telling a fussy kid to eat around the peas. If all you can afford to serve is macaroni and cheese, and you have someone who can't eat the macaroni, or the cheese - that person has no meal.
That person, or that family, may indeed be facing a life of nothing but rice and beans. Yes, people in some countries live on that - but with a bit of vegetable also, or some meat to season it. As I've been documenting, on the SNAP allowance it's hard to afford much of either vegetables or meat. I can sign up for a CSA at the equivalent of about $8 per person per week - but I need the money to pay upfront for the season, and CSAs don't accept SNAP. During the summer, Foodshare may have coupons to hand out that can be used at certain farmer's markers, which encourage people to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. But that is only in the summer, and depends upon whether a very generous (and much appreciated!) grant is renewed. Otherwise, Foodshare has only what is donated in the way of fresh fruits and vegetables, for handing out at the mobile food trucks. You never know what it will be.
So much of the time, a person who cannot eat certain foods, or who has people in the family who cannot eat those foods, has an additional challenge. A regular box of wheat-based pasta may be $1.00 on sale, or even 88 cents, but buying rice-based pasta can cost $3-4 per box. A bag of wheat flour costs $1.89, a bag half as big of gluten-free baking mix runs $4-5 each. Buying the bread can cost 99 cents if you are lucky, more often $1.88-2.99 a loaf - and gluten-free bread can cost twice as much. Not everybody is willing to go without bread - children often want to have a sandwich in their lunch at school, not a cold rice dish.
So, something else to consider. There isn't an easy answer, I know, except for food pantries that specialize in gluten-free or other special-diet foods. Where these don't exist, people need other means to get the food that will keep their family members healthy and fed. It's not just the dearth of fruit or vegetables that I have experienced this week. For some people, the very food that other people can easily eat will itself make them sick. And this isn't included in the SNAP calculation, nor the additional cost of the food that they can safely eat.