FeaturesOct/Nov 2011 Issue

Special-Diet Food Banks

How to help when the cupboards are bare

© Rene Jansa/Shutterstock images

© Rene Jansa/Shutterstock images

After a short prayer of thanks and a slightly longer prayer for protection, Cindy and her 12-year-old daughter Meagan begin eating the macaroni and cheese they picked up at the food bank in Akron, Ohio. Cindy enjoys every bite, as does Meagan. But Cindy knows that in a few short hours, she’ll be holding Meagan’s hand and offering comfort because, as a celiac, Meagan can’t handle this meal. Yet without it, Meagan will go hungry.

Meagan and Cindy are not alone.

Across America, thousands of people who depend on local food banks for their meals are facing the cruel irony of needing food to live yet knowing the items offered could make them sick—or even kill them. Food banks are drastically ill-prepared and under-informed about how to handle the special dietary needs of a growing population of people with food allergies and sensitivities.

A Call to Action

In December 2009, Dee Valdez of Loveland, Colorado, organized a gluten-free pantry as a section in her community’s food bank, the House of Neighborly Service. The first of its kind in the United States, the House of Neighborly Service now distributes food to needy families who are on special diets. For Valdez, the idea was sparked by a phone call she received 17 years before.

“In the early 1990s, a single mom called me because she didn’t know how to feed her little girl who’d just been diagnosed with celiac disease,” recalls Valdez, who headed a local celiac chapter at the time. “I went through a list of products and her response was, ‘How can I afford that? I have to choose between feeding my daughter and all my kids. What would you do? I guess my daughter will just have to learn to live with diarrhea.”

Unbeknownst to the caller, Valdez, a mother with three young children, was not much better off. Despite her own hardship, she was determined to help. She gathered up food from her household and from others who offered to assist and delivered six bags of groceries to the mother.

“I knew that was maybe a week’s worth of food for her and her children,” Valdez says. “I vowed that one day I would find a way to feed families like that, especially kids with special dietary needs.”

Several years later, Valdez found herself living in an identical situation as the caller.

“Back then, there were times when I actually had to rely on a food bank but it wasn’t designed to meet my dietary needs as a celiac. I’d get food for my children there—but I was just eating rice,” says Valdez,

Feed the Hungry

It was 15 years later when Valdez, a former journalist and TV news anchor, felt she was finally at a place in her life where she could follow up on her vow. The community need had remained unmet.

“I was rather appalled that nobody had gotten this important work done. Then I thought, well, I’ll go ahead and do it myself,” she says.

There was no sense in reinventing the wheel, Valdez thought, so she decided to start with an established food bank and work from there. That way, any issues about location, shelf space, government regulations and paperwork, staffing, safety and sanitation would already be addressed. She approached six different food banks in the Denver area—but not one of them fit the bill. The reason? No one had what she termed a “willing heart.”

“It’s not enough to have a food bank facility, sufficient space, a massive amount of donations or a lot of money. If the people who run the place don’t have willing hearts, a special-diet pantry will not be sustained,” Valdez says. “The food banks I talked to were like, yeah, that’s probably something we could look into—but I wanted people who would really embrace this.”

Another criteria for Valdez was that the food bank would offer gluten-free items on each and every day they were open, not just occasionally.

“I didn’t want this to be personality driven,” she explains. “Once I backed away or the executive director leaves, I didn’t want the whole system to fall apart. Because once you start feeding people these special-diet foods, you need to continue to do so. People should be able to count on that.”

Photo courtesy of Tracy Keegan/www.Piercespantry.com

Photo courtesy of Tracy Keegan/www.Piercespantry.com

Pierce’s Pantry, a gluten-free food bank started by high school student Pierce Keegan, operates out of Wayland, Massachusetts.

Ultimately, Valdez found the right combination in her own backyard—the House of Neighborly Service in Loveland, Colorado.

“The executive director there had lived gluten free for a while due to health reasons. She understood how challenging the diet can be and how vital the food is to people who need it,” Valdez says, calling the food bank “a really sweet find.”

Valdez called the celiac groups in the area, asking them to help secure both financial and food donations and to publicize the project throughout the Denver region. She also contacted gluten-free manufacturers across the nation, obtaining ongoing product donations in order to keep shelves regularly stocked with gluten-free pastas, cookies, pretzels, baking mixes and other goods. The staff at the House of Neighborly Service jumped right in, enthusiastically altering their procedures to incorporate the gluten-free items. Working with Valdez, they trained volunteers to read labels, sort products and stock shelves.

Opening Day

The House of Neighborly Service agreed to launch the project in December of 2009, just in time for the holidays. Christmas, a hectic time for food banks, was fast approaching.

To help publicize the availability of gluten-free food to needy families throughout the area, Valdez decided to make the opening a media event. The press, local and state dignitaries and families across the region were notified—and the event was well attended. Valdez recalls a moment at the opening that was particularly poignant for her.

“A family with seven kids came because they needed food for the holidays. Out of nine in that family, four were gluten free,” she says. “Many of the celiac moms used the food bank as an object lesson in giving, taking their kids grocery shopping to help stock the shelves. A 3-year-old girl with celiac disease gave a box of her favorite gluten-free cookies to a little child in this family. It was a powerful visual that still makes me emotional.”

Since then, Valdez has gone on to work with other food banks across the nation to help them incorporate special-diet pantries into their day-to-day operations.

“I know from personal experience how important it is to be able to have the right food to meet special dietary needs,” she says. “Parents shouldn’t have to choose between feeding their child something that’s ‘poison’ or having them go hungry. If we can get even one family the special-diet food they need, we offer them restored health and hope—and that can permanently change their lives.”

Connie Sarros has written several gluten-free cookbooks, including co-authoring Gluten-Free Cooking for Dummies. She lives in Fairlawn, Ohio.

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