Effort cooking up gluten-free pantry here

A Loveland, Colo., woman who started the country's first gluten-free food bank there is coming to Pittsburgh to help start what could be the second, or at least one of the first, and a model for others.

Like other people with celiac disease, Dee Valdez cannot tolerate gluten, a protein in wheat, rye and barley. If they do ingest it, from food or other products, their immune systems react by damaging the lining of their small intestines, which means they can't absorb nutrients from other foods.

Ms. Valdez, who was diagnosed 17 years ago, helped start a support group in northern Colorado. She now runs the Gluten Free Dee blog and sells gluten-free products, which in December she helped get on the shelves at the House of Neighborly Service food bank in Loveland, just north of Denver.

She's since been pushing for food banks in other towns and cities to do the same thing. Next week she'll be speaking to people who work for food pantries and other food providers in this area at a June 14 gathering at Allegheny General Hospital. She not only will inform them about the need for gluten-free foods, but also go out into the field to scout a pantry where gluten-free foods could be made available to those who need it.

And there are a lot of them. More than 2 million people -- about 1 in every 133 people in the U.S. -- have celiac disease, says Dr. Paul Lebovitz, director of West Penn Allegheny Health System's Division of Gastroenterology and director of the Allegheny Center for Digestive Health. He says of celiac sprue, "Here's one disease where you can't cheat" -- and eat just a little gluten -- without harm.

The center includes the Celiac Sprue Clinic, started about three years ago. Its nurse coordinator, Kathy Sepesy, worked with the Greater Pittsburgh Celiac Sprue Support Group and others to organize this gathering, where food bank operators/managers, including Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank's CEO Joyce Rothermel, will work on a plan for soliciting donations from gluten-free food manufacturers and getting money so that pantries can purchase gluten-free items.

Ms. Valdez says that pantries aren't getting requests for gluten-free foods, but that might be because people don't know they can get them, or don't know that they need them. She puts that number at an even higher 10 percent of the population.

She says, "There are a lot of other conditions that are positively effected by a gluten-free diet," from allergies to autism.

To help foster gluten-free food banks across the country, she plans to set up a clearinghouse with manufacturers so they can more easily work with the banks. Efforts to start gluten-free pantries are underway in a half dozen other cities, from Boulder, Colo., to Dallas, and there's interest in several other places, too.

The Pittsburgh workshop, which is open to the public, runs from 8 a.m. to noon in AGH's Magovern Auditorium. Register by calling 412-359-8956 or e-mailing ksepesy@wpahs.org.

Bob Batz Jr.: bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930.


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