Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Gluten-Free Blogger Helps Organize Post-Sandy Relief

Two weeks have passed since Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the east coast, but many hit hard by the disaster have yet to recover.

While cities and independent organizations are prepared for natural disasters to a certain extent, resources are limited and rarely account for those struggling with special needs, like food allergies. That’s why Erin Smith, the creator of the blog Gluten-Free Fun, started using her social media presence to connect those in need of gluten-free with resources.

Smith lives in Queens, New York and spent a frightening night while Sandy roared outside her home. But she was spared the more devastating consequences of the hurricane and quickly turned her attention to others with celiac disease who were not so lucky.

She contacted food shelters and pantries in her area to see if they had any gluten-free options for those in need and posted the information on her blog, Gluten-Free Fun. She found that grassroots movements within individual communities, like donations at Three Dogs Bakery in Westchester and G-Free NYC, the first gluten-free store in New York City, were most effective in connecting those in need with necessary supplies. “These people are living the gluten-free lifestyle and know exactly what’s needed, and they’re bringing it to the people who need it,” Smith says.

While people have expressed great generosity in donating food and supplies to other relief centers, these items are not usually gluten-free. “People are going to these facilities but there’s nothing safe to eat,” Smith says. “People are making soups and sandwiches, but everything has gluten.” While some larger relief locations reported having limited quantities of gluten-free food, they said it was difficult to ration due to many volunteers not understanding celiac disease. “People don’t know what gluten-free means,” Smith says.

One organization that did achieve success catering to those with special dietary needs was Long Island Cares, a food bank in Freeport. When Smith contacted them, they responded very proactively to meeting gluten-free needs, vowing to keep gluten-free products separate from other food and making them available by request to those in need until there was enough of a supply to advertise openly without fear of running out.  Smith also helped coordinate donations from a number of major gluten-free companies, like Kinnikinnick, by letting them know which local food banks were accepting donations. Kinnikinnick sent 600 cases of gluten-free breads and buns to City Harvest of Long Island, N.Y., and the Chapin Food Bank in Hauppauge, N.Y.

While the emergency efforts of the food bank on Long Island are commendable, Smith says Sandy shows why a specific gluten-free food bank in the New York area is so necessary. “I would love if we had a gluten-free food bank,” she says. “A place you knew you could go to get food that’s safe to eat. It would be amazing.”

There are food banks in a few other cities around the country, like Loveland, Colo., Pittsburgh, Pa., and participating Pierce’s Pantry locations throughout Massachusetts. These food banks do the important job of helping those in the gluten-free community who are in need day-to-day, but they could also be invaluable when natural disaster strikes.

Beata Rybka

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