I’m so excited to share something that has been brewing in my head for months now. Without further ado, let me introduce you to Safe Staples for Food Pantry Guests on Special Diets. If you’ve already read this post, hop straight over to the instructions page.
It’s a very simple way to get gluten free and allergy-friendly foods into food pantries and into the hands of those who need them. Regardless of your connection to the celiac, food allergy or special diet community, I really hope you’ll take a moment to learn more about why this is such an important cause. At the end of the post, I’ll explain the extremely simple way you can help. But first, here’s a bit of why I felt compelled to start this program.
The route to preschool takes us past the Township Office which houses the food pantry. Everyday I passed a sign listing the pantry’s current needs. Half singing along to the radio, half chit-chatting with my son, I barely noticed the sign the first couple weeks of school. One day it just registered and my heart sank. It was a sobering reminder that even in this nice, well-kept community, folks were hurting. I was grateful that my new community was reaching out, but it struck me. I have celiac disease and my son has life-threatening food allergies, which means that my pantry “staples” look very different from most others’. If my family was ever in need of food pantry assistance, it would be unlikely we’d find food there that was safe for me and my son. How do families like mine get fed in their time of need?
My thoughts snowballed and while the main concern is the physical reality of being fed, I kept going back to the emotional component of living on a special diet and what that might mean to someone seeking help from a food pantry also living on a special diet.
My diagnosis of celiac disease was just a few short months before my new baby’s reaction to touching peanut butter led to his diagnosis of food allergies. In the midst of life and work and family, I suddenly had to figure out how to keep our little world gluten, peanut, tree nut and egg free. It’s a frightening realization that food can harm you, that it can kill you or someone you love. It’s hard to sleep at first, because you don’t know where to start or where to stop. Every single thing we eat needs to researched. What are the ingredients? What did those ingredients touch? Was it cut on a clean cutting board? Made in a clean pan? I’d nervously manage to put together a safe meal just in time to have to start all over again a couple of hours later. I was aching for knowledge and good food and recipes and muscle memory in my kitchen again. Armed with a positive attitude, a fully-engaged husband, the luxury of a fullish wallet and unlimited internet access, I slowly found those things. Five years later, I am a happy advocate for the celiac and food allergy communities myself, but I constantly work hard to manage the emotional side of our diagnoses.
I was always a legendary dining companion and relished local, hole-in-the-wall type joints. The dawn of facebook proved so when I reconnected with old friends and dozens – yes dozens – of them said, “Hey, Bridget! Good to see you! Do you still love to eat?” Each friend request instantly brought to mind the food we shared together years ago, for me and for them.
Shortly after our new food adventure started, I remember noticing the insane number of restaurant billboards I passed. Compounded by the number of glorious Chicago eating establishments I lived among, I thought, “My gosh, they’re not speaking to me anymore”. It felt like the world wasn’t speaking to me anymore; that somehow, I was no longer invited. I was so uncomfortable requiring so much information from those who offered food that I sometimes felt like I was listening to a stranger.
My life quickly went from “yes, please” to “no, thank you”.
Being on special diet is like anything in life. Its position of importance fluctuates. And I always feel lucky that of all of the possible problems, we have ones with a simple solution. There are a million other things that are worse. The vast majority of time, I live by the “cans” instead of the “cannots” and our diets stay in perspective. The food we can or can’t eat is just a tiny speck of our lives. But when I’m sick or or vulnerable or worried about other things, the inability to freely eat gets bigger. Choice is a powerful thing. Eating the special plate you brought while everyone else has full choice around you can plant seeds of doubt. Even in places that feel like home, you can feel on the fringe, not quite included and, if you’re not careful to combat this thought, unworthy.
Special diets require diligent planning. Which, frankly, gets super boring. Even if someone wants to make us a nice meal, I’m still the boss of it. I have to be head chef and research analyst, even if I’m not in the kitchen. As a food allergy parent, food surprises are scary. I’m constantly trying to stay one step ahead of the food my son will encounter so he can enjoy something comparable, as well as avoid any dangerous situations. The predictability and lack of “safe surprises” wears on me sometimes. I find myself cranky and I realize it’s because that wonder and excitement I had for food is buried. I have to watch that I stop that feeling from bleeding into other areas of my life.
On the flip side, when I find a new product or someone sends me a link to a new restaurant, that hope and wonder and excitement come right on back like they’ve never been gone. That familiar lightness is contagious and my senses quickly get back to the business of being inspired.
When my mom found gluten free pasta that worked well in Grandma’s Casey’s famous spaghetti, I felt the comfort I had been missing.
When I mastered that long-beloved apple skillet cake without gluten, peanuts, tree nuts or eggs, my hesitant mouth fully relaxed and let out a ChristmasMorningSantaCame squeal! My feet followed in the celebration, jumping up and down in our little 3rd floor kitchen. Sorry downstairs neighbor, but I had to dance! I felt like anything at all in the world was possible! If our kitchen was any bigger I would have spun and sung “The Hills are Alive”. Not even exaggerating. It felt that good.
When, five years ago, that woman and her two kids stopped me in Whole Foods as the the tears welled up in my eyes out of confusion and fear, I felt kindness like I have never felt before. When I recognize that look in the aisles now, I feel purpose and connection. I say goodbye with pride that I’ve helped someone feel less alone, more empowered.
When someone surprises my son with a treat they’ve seen me give him before, or bakes something and saves the empty ingredient boxes, I can’t deny that even if they do come in a different (yet clearly-labeled) package than most, we are absolutely welcome to and are continually receiving life’s gifts.
I think it’s safe to say that food pantry guests are at a vulnerable point in their lives. In the midst of rebuilding, feeling hopeful and comforted and worthy matter. Being fed matters. Feeling safe matters. For a food pantry guest on a special diet, safe alternative pantry staples mean they can adapt their family recipes to include those they love. They can celebrate their child with birthday cake. They can share community through food. Safe Staples in the food pantry mean the power of choice is once again, in their hands. Safe Staples will nourish more than just their bellies.
So let’s reach out to food pantry guests on special diets. Let’s take one worry of of their plates and fill it instead with good, safe food.
Are you with me? I promise, it’s simple and quick. Follow me to the instruction page, and spread the word.