Families With Food Allergies Struggle With Bare Shelves

As the coronavirus spreads and locked-down communities stock up, products needed by allergy sufferers are increasingly hard to come by.

Scant offerings at a grocery store in Brooklyn last month.
Credit...Sarah Blesener for The New York Times

Like many Americans these days, Lisa M. Delmont is kept up at night by worry. But for Ms. Delmont, it’s the empty grocery store shelves that bring on dread.

Her 2-year-old son, Benjamin, is severely allergic to milk, eggs, cashews, pistachios and bananas, so she has to be judicious about the items she brings home. Exposure to the wrong food could send Benjamin into anaphylactic shock, something that has happened three times since he was born.

“I am way more terrified of taking him to an E.R. now than I’ve ever been,” said Ms. Delmont, 35, of Jacksonville, N.C.

The rush to stock up on food in response to the coronavirus pandemic has put an extra strain on the millions of Americans with food allergies who were already restricted in what they can safely eat.

Ms. Delmont, a part-time registered nurse, has gone to great lengths to find products that won’t cause a reaction, researching ingredients, emailing manufacturers and cooking meals from scratch. Without access to certain brands — Ms. Delmont said her local store was sold out of many foods — her options are more limited than ever.

For now, Benjamin will have to eat a lot of beans. “They might not be the most exciting of meals,” she said, “but they won’t kill him, either.”

Ms. Delmont isn’t the only one hunting far and wide for harmless foods.

After the pandemic began to spread in the United States, Kelley D. Lord, of Orlando, Fla., wasn’t able to find the brand of pasta she makes for her 12-year-old son, Mason, who is allergic to eggs. She asked a friend — who lives nearly 400 miles away in Columbus, Ga. — to check out a nearby shop. The friend found the pasta, confirmed it was the right one in a text message, and shipped it to Ms. Lord.

“It’s so scary when your child has an allergy, because it’s literally a life-or-death situation,” said Ms. Lord, 50, who runs a travel agency and is herself allergic to peanuts and onions. “You can’t substitute something else.”

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, grocery shopping was stressful for people with food allergies. The federal government requires companies to tell consumers when particular ingredients are used. If something is made with one of eight types of foods — milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, wheat, soybeans and tree nuts — the company must declare it on the label.

This alerts people to potentially dangerous ingredients, but not all allergens are on that list. In addition, companies sometimes need to warn consumers about possible “cross-contact” with allergens, telling them that something “may contain” peanuts, which can create more confusion.

Alicia M. Ames, of Elbridge, N.Y., said her 4-year-old son, Jackson, is allergic to sesame, eggs, peanuts and legumes. Sesame is not part of the Food and Drug Administration’s labeling law, and its presence is sometimes hidden under obscure descriptions like “natural flavors” or “spices.”

More than one million children and adults are estimated to have a sesame allergy, and the F.D.A. is considering adding it to the list of allergens that manufacturers must include on packages.

Ms. Ames bakes her own bread, but her supplies of safe flour and yeast are running low. “Our worry is that these foods aren’t going to be available, and what are we going to feed our family?” said Ms. Ames, 32, a musician.

Her unease is shared by others across the country.

Recently, Elana D. Zimmerman put on gloves and a mask and ventured out to many grocery stores in her neighborhood on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She did it again the next day. And the day after that. Ms. Zimmerman, 36, has a 1-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son, both with severe allergies.

Laura C. Schorn, of Aurora, Colo., has been going to stores at various times in the day, hoping to catch a lucky break and arrive after a restock. Ms. Schorn, who has an intolerance to wheat and soy, said she has left stores crying, feeling defeated.

“My fear right now is less that I’m going to get the virus and more that if I do get it and I become quarantined, I’m not going to have enough food to get through it,” said Ms. Schorn, 25, who works as a supervisor at a restaurant chain.

On a recent Sunday, Eric J. Payne, of Hollis, Maine, found himself staring at empty store shelves. His 3-year-old son, Elijah, is allergic to dairy, egg, cashews and pistachios. Produce and meat were almost entirely gone. Flour was completely sold out.

“The hoarding is the concern for us,” said Mr. Payne, 33, a marine biologist whose wife, Kimberly, also has food allergies. “Be mindful of others. Be mindful of the allergy kids.”

Some companies that cater to people with dietary restrictions are feeling the crush of demand.

Oatly, a Swedish oat milk company that has expanded its presence in the United States in recent years, has seen purchase orders and requests from retailers “increase by orders of magnitude,” said Mike F. Messersmith, the president of Oatly’s North America operations.

To meet the surge, Mr. Messersmith said, the company has made more of its products available on its website and is keeping its facility in Millville, N.J., running during the coronavirus crisis.

Other companies said that demand has been sharply higher than usual — including MadeGood, which specializes in granola, cookies and other foods free of several allergens, and King Arthur Flour, which makes a gluten-free flour.

Lisa G. Gable, the chief executive of Food Allergy Research & Education, a nonprofit organization in McLean, Va., is concerned about the diminishing options. She is calling on shoppers to consider those with food allergies when filling their grocery carts.

“Be aware of that as you’re pulling these things off the shelves,” Ms. Gable said. “The ability to substitute food is something that keeps them alive and healthy and out of emergency rooms.”