By Maureen Stanley, Associate Editor
Imagine being on a gluten-free diet and unable to afford gluten-free foods to feed yourself or your family. Dee Valdez recognized this dire circumstance and valiantly took action.
DGF: You are truly a groundbreaker! Tell us what inspired you to found the National Gluten-free Food Bank Movement in 2009?
DV: 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. This was way before the internet, so this mom had to do some digging to find me. I was co-leading a local celiac chapter at the time. As I went through a list of very expensive products, her response was, “How can I afford that? I have to choose between feeding my daughter and feeding my whole family. What would you do?” There was a long silence. “I guess my daughter will just have to learn to live with diarrhea.”
I knew this mother’s pain all too well. As the mother of 3, I was not much better off but I was determined to help. I gathered up food from my home and from others who offered to help 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. I vowed that one day I would find a way to feed families in need, especially kids with special food needs.
Several years later, I found myself 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 kids there—but I was just eating rice and beans.
It was 15 years later I felt I was finally at a place in life where I could follow up on my vow. Doing all the initial public relations and marketing for Udi’s Gluten-free, I gained broad access and exposure to gluten-free manufacturers nationwide. I was also connected to movers and shakers in the gluten-free world locally and across the country. I thank my supportive gluten-free friends on Twitter for that! I was disappointed that the community need had remained unmet. I was appalled that nobody had gotten this important work done. After soliciting help and getting none, I thought, I’ll go ahead and do it myself. Two months later, we were up and running!
DGF: Since initially partnering with the House of Neighborly Service to create the very first gluten-free food bank, you’ve collaborated with numerous food banks all over the country. Have you seen an increased awareness within these food banks of the need for gluten-free and allergy-free food options?
DV: The general awareness that there is a need for allergy free food at food banks has increased nationwide as the media and manufacturers talk about Celiac Disease and gluten-free food and do some serious marketing to attract our business. The passion for change is still driven by personal experience. When someone you know and love suddenly needs to eat gluten-free, the commitment for change is powerful and fast moving.
DGF: What can the gluten-free community do to help residents of their area who are struggling and unable to afford gluten-free food?
Everyone can make weekly or monthly donations anywhere they know someone needs help eating. This can be individuals or families in need that are known personally, identified by a support group or community serving agency, thru a friend, from work, or identified through a church or synagogue.
I’d suggest a couple friends get together to provide regular support to a family in their community, the “adopt a family” approach used so well at Christmas time. Remember to give healthy, nutritious, meals rather than just carbs. There is a great shortage of healthy protein or fruit donated. A generous gift card to a restaurant who does gluten-free well is also a tremendous blessing! The need is ongoing. There are so many ways to help!
DGF: What tips can you share with our readers on starting a local gluten-free food bank if there is not an established food bank in their area?
DV: There are several ways to establish a gluten-free food bank:
- Find a local church, synagogue or community serving agency willing to re-purpose a closet to set up a gluten-free food bank.
- Find a group of 4-12 volunteers to work in pairs weekly or monthly to distribute food. Tap into the college market and include kids as young as elementary school age. They are enthusiastic volunteers and learn many life lessons in the process.
- Decide the frequency of giving.
- Determine if there is any eligibility criteria necessary. I think if someone is willing to humble themselves and ask for food, and you have enough food, they are eligible.
- Write up a list of most desired donations and be sure to include soup, chili, canned chicken and salmon and fruit. Be sure if you donate something like yummy quinoa that you include all the fixings to make it a meal. Olive oil, sea salt, fresh garlic and a garlic press are nice additions.
- Create some buzz around your efforts by getting a story in the local newspaper or sharing information on talk radio and asking local bloggers to post a blog about your efforts.
Get to know more about Dee Valdez at www.GlutenFreeDee.com
NATIONWIDE GLUTEN-FREE FOOD BANKS
House of Neighborly Service
565 North Cleveland Avenue
Loveland, CO 80537
Christian Community Action
168 Davenport Avenue
New Haven, CT 06519
Metropolitan Ministries, Inc.
2002 North Florida Avenue
Tampa, FL 33602
PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA AREA
North Hills Community Outreach
1975 Ferguson Road
Allison Park, PA 15101
East End Cooperative Ministries
250 N. Highland Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15206
West Hills Food Pantry
Sharon Community Presbyterian Church
522 Carnot Road
Moon Township, PA15108
Brentwood Presbyterian Church Food Pantry
3725 Brownsville Road
Pittsburgh PA 15227
The Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry
828 Hazelwood Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15277
South Hills Interfaith Ministry
5301 Park Avenue
Bethel Park, PA 15102
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS AREA
Acton Community Supper
Boxborough Business Park
235 Summer Road
Boxborough, MA, 01719
Ecumenical Community Food Pantry of Norwood
Grace Episcopal Church
150 Chapel Street
Norwood, MA 02062
Parmenter Community Health Care
266 Cochituate Road
Wayland, MA 01778
St. Paul’s Outreach
15 Chatham Street
Worcester, MA 01609