Few Options for those with Allergies, Dietary Restrictions While Homeless

St. Anthony’s Dining Room.

Hunger is a universal part of the human experience. That all-consuming rumble in the belly is a feeling familiar to all of us. To function at their best, our bodies need a proper balance of vitamins and minerals, as well as plenty of water. Proteins, fiber and oils are also necessary to sufficiently meet our nutritional needs. While just about anything edible can make the hunger vanish, there is a difference between filling your stomach and feeding your body.

Given the fast-paced nature of our daily lives, it is often difficult for people to maintain a diet that balances the nutrition they need, with foods they want. It’s a matter of both time and money. Recent trends in the food industry have led to an increased availability of healthier food options, yet these options are usually more expensive. Additionally, proper meal planning and preparation requires access to a kitchen, as well as the free time it takes to prepare a nutritionally balanced meal. While this can be a struggle for even the most affluent members of our society, the challenge of maintaining proper health through diet is particularly daunting for people with no homes and minimal financial resources.

Haley is a low-income resident of San Francisco who recently made the choice to vegan. She says that she made the decision after watching the documentary “Cowspiracy” by filmmakers Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn. The film focuses on the destructive impact that corporate animal agriculture has on the environment. It also showcases the treatment of cattle on industrial factory farms, and what’s revealed is often disturbing. While there are a number of reasons why people choose to switch to a plant based diet, Haley is definitely vegan for the animals.  It is a choice she feels is very important to her, but she admits that given her current living situation, maintaining veganism is not always easy, or even possible.

Formerly homeless, Haley has been living indoors for about a year, thanks to the Navigation Center. While she is very thankful to be living indoors, she has only a microwave to cook with, which is not exactly conducive to a healthy diet.

“I eat a lot of junk food because it’s cheaper and easier. Especially being someone living in an SRO, where I don’t have a stove,” Haley explains. “If I’m hungry and someone offers me a grilled cheese sandwich, I’m gonna eat it.” She says. “I cheat because I’m poor.”

One helpful resource that Haley has found is local farmer’s markets, where many vendors honor food stamps.

“Farmer’s markets help a lot because, for food stamps, they give you double what you pay. So if you pay 5 dollars they give you ten dollars in tokens. It’s helpful,” she says.

People who make specific dietary choices for personal reasons, such as weight-loss or ideology, are often forced to make concessions in times when their preferred options aren’t available. Still others face severe restrictions based on allergies to certain foods. For example, people afflicted with Celiac Disease are unable to properly process wheat gluten, which is a common ingredient in a majority of baked goods. For someone who relies on cafeterias and hand-outs from strangers for food resources, avoiding an ingredient like gluten can be very difficult.

Charlie works for a local organization providing meals to people in need on a daily basis. He has asked that the name of the organization not be mentioned, but verifies that he has years of experience in helping to feed residents of the city. His cafeteria serves meals to people every day, and he says that there is always a vegetarian option, and occasionally vegan ones. While gluten-free meals are not regularly part of the menu, they do have gluten-free breads available for those who request them. According to Charlie, the best way for people who rely on meal services to get fed, while maintaining their personal dietary needs, is to first have knowledge of what those needs are, and then make sure to communicate them to the people providing meals.

“If people know what their restrictions are, and let us know, we do our best to meet their needs,” Charlie says.