Community helps mom find SpaghettiOs for daughter with autism

In mid-March, when people were stocking up on canned goods and toilet paper at grocery stores throughout the country, Crystal MacDonald couldn’t find SpaghettiOs with Meatballs anywhere.

For some, having a pantry full of non-perishables during lengthy stay-at-home orders was precautionary, but for MacDonald, it was paramount. MacDonald’s daughter Ashlyn has severe, non-verbal autism. When she was four years old, she tried SpaghettiOs with Meatballs and, since mid-March, has been unable to eat anything else.

“Before the pandemic, she would eat a few other types of foods like cheese pizza, yogurt and grilled cheese. Food is a very sensory experience for her and I believe that most foods are too much, texture and taste-wise, for her,” MacDonald told TODAY Food. “Once she lost her routine of school, and like so many people with autism, routine is vital to their mental health, she stopped eating other foods. I think the predictability of the texture and taste of the SpaghettiOs brings a sense of control and comfort to her in this time of chaos.”

A mother of five with children ages four through 13, MacDonald stopped working in April to take care of her children while earning her accelerated nursing degree online from Simmons University in Boston. When she realized the SpaghettiOs were all out at her local market in Attleboro, Massachusetts, MacDonald began checking grocery stores and food pantries all over the area — calling or visiting up to 20 per day.

In addition to searching daily, MacDonald tried other variations like SpaghettiOs with Franks or similar items by Chef Boyardee, but nothing worked.

“I tried all the non-brand name versions I could. I even prepared them when she couldn’t see the can but she always knew it wasn’t SpaghettiOs and would refuse to eat them,” MacDonald said.

In early August, Attleboro’s local paper, the Sun Chronicle, featured MacDonald in a story about people’s experiences with food shortages. Afterwards, MacDonald received an outpouring of support from her community, from tips about where to find the product to donations of cans directly to her door.

“It has been an incredible experience to feel so much love from our community,” MacDonald told TODAY. “As a parent of a special needs child, it can be a lonely existence and one that you imagine others to not quite understand. Especially in these times of such turmoil and hardship, it has been incredible to experience such kindness.”

On Thursday, TODAY inquired with a spokesperson for Campbell’s Soup Company, which owns SpaghettiOs, about whether they’d caught wind of the MacDonald’s quest for its canned pasta. They hadn’t — but were eager to help.

“SpaghettiOs was glad to see that the MacDonald family received so much support from friends and neighbors to locate Ashlyn’s favorite meal,” company spokesperson Lisa Zahn told TODAY. “We’d like to make it a little easier for them and plan to send the MacDonald’s a year’s supply of SpaghettiOs and Meatballs.”

The surprise gift brought MacDonald to tears.

“That is such an incredible gift for my daughter and for us,” she said. “This will bring so much joy and relieve so much stress. This is an amazing blessing and I can’t express my gratitude enough. I don’t have enough words.”