If you don’t have food allergies, your world is an all-you-can eat buffet. Whether you’re on the road, in somebody’s kitchen, or in front of a vending machine, you’ll never go hungry. If you’re down on your luck and need help feeding your family, you know you can always count on food pantries.
But what about us gluten-intolerant folk? Well, we see the world a bit differently. We often eat before we go out or we’ll always carry food with us. Oftentimes, we have to call ahead to restaurants to see if they can accommodate our special diets. Weddings and similar celebrations leave us pulling the head chef aside to ask for a complete list of each ingredient in the meal.
But what if we didn’t have that kind of control over what we ate anymore? What if we had to depend on whatever was put in front of us or starve?
A gluten-intolerant person is unable to digest gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. When a person who has this intolerance eats food containing this protein, their immune system attacks their gut, causing inflammation, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, brain fog, and a feeling of physical exhaustion.
For some, gluten doesn’t affect the digestive system but rather the nervous system, triggering mental confusion, anxiety, depression, autistic-like symptoms, and, in extreme cases, violent mood swings, mania, and paranoia.
Whether it affects the brain, the intestines, or both, a person with gluten intolerance has an immune system that has turned on itself. It sees gluten as a foreign invader, similar to that of a virus, and continuously goes on the attack, destroying healthy tissue. Over time, this can do serious damage to all organ systems, causing them to fail.
You haven’t eaten in over 24 hours and your stomach rumbles at the smell of the food before it’s even put in front of you. You open the bag, your mouth watering, and the hunger pangs clench your stomach even tighter.
The two cheeseburgers, French fries, onion rings, and apple pie, while generously offered, are poison to you.
You know you can’t eat it. And, if out of desperation, you do, you know you’ll be curled up in terrible pain a few hours later, trying to have your diarrhea attacks as discreetly as possible behind a building or a tree.
Now, image you’re a mother who walks into a food pantry to feed herself, her spouse, and two children. The food available might not be top of the line, but it’s at least safe and edible for most members of the family, except your eight-year-old daughter.
Your daughter has celiac disease and her health depends on a completely gluten-free diet. If she gets sick, you can’t afford the medical bills for her care. As you read the label on can after can, box after box, an increasing sense of desperate panic builds within you. Not one item on the shelf is safe for your little girl to eat.
For many, this is reality. They must be on gluten-free diets but must also depend on food pantries for every meal. At most food pantries, the food available consists of crackers, pasta, boxed cereal, and canned meals such as ravioli, stew, chili, and soup. The ravioli is obvious enough but many canned stews, chili’s, and soups, and even canned meats also contain gluten, making them off-limits no matter how many meals have been missed.
If you regularly contribute to a food pantry, consider donating a bag or two of nothing but gluten-free food. You don’t have to go to a health food store to find it. Many discount stores now offer plenty of gluten-free pastas, crackers, cereal, and canned meals that are safe for someone with celiac disease to eat. Read the label. It should say, “gluten free”. If you’re unsure, ask a store clerk.
When you donate gluten-free food to food pantries, your contribution could mean the difference between hungry people eating safe, satisfying meals or walking away from a building full of food with their stomachs still growling.
Will you pledge to donate gluten-free food the next time you contribute to your local pantry?