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Gluten-Free Food Insecurity: A Growing Gluten-Filled Problem

Imagine that the only treatment for your autoimmune disease is a gluten-free diet. What do you do if you also cannot afford food?

  • Mabel is an older adult with celiac disease. She lives in New York on a fixed income. To afford gluten-free (GF) food, Mabel collects rent from a stranger who sleeps on her couch.  
  • Justin has never had a problem feeding himself or his family before, despite him and one of his daughters having been diagnosed with non-celiac gluten sensitivity. But now because of COVID-19, he has lost his job and the food pantries in his town can only give him a pre-boxed amount of food based on the size of his family. Last month, the box only contained one GF item.
  • Susan had to retire early due to health issues from celiac disease. Her 9-year-old son also has celiac disease. Following a recent move, Susan’s food assistance dropped from $300 to $112 a month. She has been going without food so that her son can eat.

Since COVID-19 hit the United States, the National Celiac Association (NCA) has been receiving an increasing number of heart-breaking phone calls and emails from people like Mabel, Justin, and Susan, all in need of GF food assistance. Having had years of experience running a Massachusetts-based Gluten-Free Food Bank, NCA decided to expand its reach nationally with the launch of Feeding Gluten-Free. This unique program now serves the whole nation by coordinating donations from GF food donors to locations able to accept and deliver them to people seeking this medically necessary food.

The gluten-free diet

While the GF diet is consumed by many, approximately 1 percent of the population has celiac disease, a serious autoimmune disease where the only treatment is the lifelong adherence to a strict GF diet. There are over 200 symptoms of celiac disease ranging from abdominal cramping, bloating, brain fog and anemia, to infertility, joint pain and other autoimmune conditions. Some people have active celiac disease but experience no symptoms at all.

People with non-celiac gluten sensitivity, comprising approximately 6 percent of the population, experience symptoms similar to people with celiac disease and must also eliminate gluten from their diet. Add to this, people suffering from other conditions who feel better while eating GF, and the number of people who need GF food keeps rising. Please note, it is extremely important to rule out celiac disease with your medical provider before removing gluten from your diet.

Media headlines show how hunger in America has grown to critical levels as the effects of COVID-19 have dramatically increased unemployment and poverty rates. Food assistance has been further complicated by fewer volunteers, contactless food pick-ups, fewer resources, and limited options. Imagine needing food, waiting in line for hours, being given a box of food, and receiving much of which you cannot eat, as in Justin’s story above.   

Where do I get GF food?

While several food pantries have had to limit the type of food people get, there are many around the nation who have been able to keep serving those who require GF food and other restricted diets. Thus far, through countless calls and connections, NCA has identified 36 organizations who can help people who need GF food assistance. Most of these organizations are reporting that the increase in this specific need has doubled to tripled. Another consideration is that GF bread, flour, and pasta, on average, is three times more expensive than gluten-containing counterparts.

Therefore, the focus of NCA has been to educate people how to find naturally GF foods such as fresh or plain, canned fruits and vegetables, meat and dairy, rice and potatoes. Some foods now carry a GF label, but being good at label reading is a must when it comes to having celiac disease. NCA also provides education to individuals and food assistance organizations, many of whom are eager to learn more. For people like Mabel, Justin, and Susan as well as the countless others in similar situations, there are teams of people trying to help meet the growing problem of GF food insecurity. NCA has been thankful to coordinate the delivery of over $320,000 worth of GF food across 23 states as of July. However, with over 64,000 food assistance organizations in the U.S., NCA still faces immense hurdles to get GF food to every person in need.

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