Mt. Airy retailer finds niche as food allergies increase

When Dory Ellen Fish orders lunch, she can cause a commotion. Servers bite their tongue. Nearby diners roll their eyes. “I feel like I’m totally high-maintenance,” said Fish, an acupuncturist who works in Mt. Airy. “I feel like a nuisance.”

Fish has an onion sensitivity, which forces her to ask for details about how every dish is prepared. The whole process usually isn’t well-received. That is, until she found Food for All, which opened last fall in Mt. Airy on Germantown Avenue. At this allergy-friendly market, questions aren’t just tolerated, they’re encouraged.

When Fish asked Food for All co-owner Amy Kunkle if any of the day’s soups were made with onions, Kunkle was happy to answer. The next time she stopped in, Fish was stunned. There was an onion-free soup option. Kunkle had changed the recipe for her. Now she doesn’t take her lunch break anywhere else. “Why would I?” she said.

The store, which offers both groceries and prepared food, is a place where being sensitive to an ingredient is no big deal.

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Food allergies are more prevalent

Food for All’s opening coincides with a national increase in food allergies. From 1997 to 2007, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention documented an 18 percent increase of food allergies in children.

Celiac disease, a condition that makes one intolerant to gluten, is four times as common as it was 50 years ago, according to the Mayo Clinic. This trend has lead to increased efforts to accommodate the allergic.

Thirty-five percent of schools have some sort of allergy-related food ban in place, according to the School Nutrition Association. Doctors are testing a peanut allergy-suppressing patch on children. Even baseball stadiums are getting in on the action, creating “peanut aware zones.”

Despite these recent accommodations, it’s more important to educate families on allergies and allergic reactions than to ban certain foods, says Terri Brown-Whitehorn, a food allergy specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. And for some allergies, a ban can’t be the answer – the most common allergy among children is actually cow’s milk, and as Brown-Whitehorn notes, there isn’t going to be a milk-free school anytime soon.

Reading the labels for you

At Food for All, it’s easy for the food sensitive to find what they’re looking for. There’s no need to dissect ingredient lists, as Kunkle, along with co-owners Leslie McLaughlin and Rachel Kern, investigate every single one of their products. They’ll call up food companies, even if they’re located overseas, to suss out any trace of an allergen. When the owners found out that one brand of sprinkles had barley grass in it, they pulled the whole line, worried it might contain gluten.

Food for All is also meticulous about food preparation. They bought new cooking equipment to ensure no previous cross-contamination, their kitchen is entirely peanut-free and they have specific utensils and separate sinks to deal with any sort of cooking that includes a possible allergen.

Speciality products often cost more

All this vigilance has a cost. Gluten-free foods are often much pricier than their standard counterparts. Fortunately, more options and thus, better prices, may soon be available. Food for All’s natural food distributors are thriving. One distributor, United Natural Foods, Inc., has seen a nearly 20 percent increase in net income since last year. McLaughlin notes how common brands like Betty Crocker, King Arthur’s Flour and Tastykake are all providing gluten-free options.

Yet the ladies of Food for All are not merely in the business of food. “We’re a mom store,” Kunkle said. Children – hers or other employees’ – can often be found in the market, causing mischief or licking the icing off a homemade cupcake.

Organic and locally grown products

In addition to serving the food-sensitive, the market also appeals to Mt. Airy residents’ taste for everything local and organic. Food for All’s clientele is split evenly between both camps, Kunkle said.

There’s the mother-daughter pair who both have celiac disease, the family whom Kunkle cooks dinner for once a week (no allergies – it’s just easier and tastier this way, the family says) and even the French bulldog with a sensitive stomach. His favorite is the turkey from a local farm in Lancaster, Pa.

The market’s shelves are lined with local honeys, bottled spices, and gluten-free pretzels. It often smells of rosemary, from Kunkle’s balsamic rosemary chicken. If there’s something you like but don’t see in the store, all you have to do is tell one of the owners. They’ll order it for you.

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