Hunger, service, advocacy, and pizza

Domino's Wisconsin 6 Cheese Pizza Slice

There’s a homeless shelter in walking distance of my apartment, where I volunteer once a month. It’s “transitional,” meaning it’s intended for families who need short-term housing assistance (though I’m not entirely sure what “short term” means, because I volunteered there several times last autumn, then recently signed up for the same volunteer project again and encountered many children I recognized from the fall). The project I do is called “Read to Me.” We volunteers come in, read with one or two kids each for about 45 minutes, then the kids do a craft, then they get pizza.

As you might expect, the reading is tolerated but the pizza is the main event. The kids get jittery and excited as pizza time nears, chanting, “We want pizza!” and—even more tellingly—actually settling down upon being told that was the condition for receiving the pizza. The kids are of all different reading levels, all different personalities, and all different shapes and sizes, but they’re united in their love of pizza.

But one kid, small for his age, chanted along with the rest but barely nibbled the very tip of his slice, getting his hands smeared with grease but otherwise hardly touching the pizza. When the others were clamoring for seconds, he just sat quietly. I couldn’t help but notice, and to wonder why this would be. Obviously, there could have been any number of reasons why this kid wasn’t eating his pizza: maybe he’d had breakfast late, maybe he was picky, maybe he didn’t actually like pizza but enjoyed joining in the collective effervescence of anticipating it. There was no real reason to jump to the conclusion that pizza made him feel sick, but I did wonder if that could be it. 

For a kid who has certain food intolerances or celiac disease, pizza could be a painful present. I wondered if there was any chance he did, and if so whether he was diagnosed and whether the shelter staff was aware. I wondered whether their being aware would make any difference. Introducing gluten-free options to a pizza party for 30 kids adds logistical issues and extra expense. This particular party was no-frills: plain cheese pizza with juice drinks and fruit snacks that were already in the shelter’s cupboards. The only difference might have been that this boy would have been told not to eat the pizza, to simply go without.

I know I see the world through gluten-colored glasses recently, and I try to work against my own tendency to see celiac everywhere. I’m really not claiming that this boy has celiac disease. But watching him not eat that pizza got me thinking. From a statistical standpoint, it’s of course true that some people in homeless shelters have celiac disease or food allergies. I am not sure what kind of food is provided on a day-to-day basis in homeless shelters, but given the ubiquity of pizza and cake as special treats and the high representation of wheat and allergens in, for example, public school cafeterias, I have a feeling there isn’t much accommodation of special dietary needs. I wonder if any accommodations are made to avoid or treat diabetes. If anyone knows more about this, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Similarly, some families whose incomes qualify them for food stamps must contend with food allergies or food-related disorders like celiac disease. This is troubling because, according to the image below, the most subsidized and therefore cheapest foods in the US are wheat, corn, and soy—two out of three of which are on the list of the top eight allergens, and one of which of course contains gluten. (And corn really isn’t a particularly nutrient-rich food compared to other whole grains and is often used in highly processed forms such as syrup.)


As much as I’m in favor of cooking from scratch using whole foods, and as much as I feel that this can in the long run be considerably cheaper than convenience foods, convenience foods really are more convenient than whole foods, or at least they seem as though they are—especially to a parent with multiple jobs, long commutes, health issues of their own, older and younger family members to support, and any number of other issues that impact the energy and time folks have available to cook. And gluten-free/otherwise “safe” (dairy-free, organic, low-sodium, low-sugar, etc.) convenience foods are almost always more expensive and difficult to find than their counterparts.

1166663921_00905Sure, I might consider it easy and inexpensive to buy a package of corn tortillas and a few cans of beans, sauté them with onions and garlic and spices, top them with cheese, tomatoes, and lettuce. With this kind of simple recipe in one’s back pocket, there’s not much need to ever buy a premade meal. But people need to know the simple options available, and they need to get past the initial grocery shopping barrier, where a stressed shopper may find it easier to throw a few bags and boxes into a cart and get in line rather than visit several aisles to select fresh ingredients. Then, even if the time to cook a fresh, lower-sodium, lower-sugar, no-allergen meal is about the same as to cook, say, Hamburger Helper or Kraft mac & cheese, people need to know and believe that it is.

I don’t think parents of any economic bracket are feeding their kids peanut butter if it’s going to send them into anaphylactic shock—though please correct me if I’m wrong—but for parents of children with celiac disease who must choose between feeding their kids food that makes them ill or not feeding them at all, the “correct” choice is clear but incredibly unfair. Feeding a kid with celiac disease a sandwich is “just” going to cause them discomfort, albeit in some cases severe discomfort (as well as long-term intestinal damage that can be reversed in the future). Living Without covered this topic some time ago in this article, which includes this wrenching quotation from a mom discussing the available options at her local food bank: “My daughter will just have to live with diarrhea.”

But she shouldn’t have to. No one should. People who have (or whose children have) celiac disease and who can’t afford groceries, much less pricier gluten-free staples like bread and cereal, need to be able to get gluten-free food from shelters, food banks, and soup kitchens. Foods stamps need to cover gluten-free or allergen-free food. Companies need to donate things other than peanut butter and wheat pasta to food banks (which, from what I can tell, actually prefer to get donations of money or time from average citizens, since the foods donated are sometimes unsuitable). We need to provide support for those in need that addresses all their needs. 

I found out about Food Bloggers Against Hunger yesterday, and I didn’t try to officially sign up since it was so last minute and I’m not really sure I’m a food blogger anyway. But I felt inspired to join in, so I wrote this post. Check out the other posts and consider sending a letter to your Congress reps asking them to protect SNAP funding.

I fully understand that in a time when we’re fighting to keep even the financial assistance we already provide to the hungry, it may seem excessive to ask for even more specialized care. But I think it’s important. Celiac disease advocacy, though important, seems to often focus on issues of available food and awareness in restaurants and, recently, in college dining halls. As important as this may be, it concentrates our energy on spaces that already cater to the relatively privileged. I feel that we as celiac or food allergy advocates need to broaden our scope, to focus on the pressing daily reality of starvation in our country and in others. I’m just not totally sure how to do it, which is why I’m opening this up to you now.

Do you agree we as celiac or food allergy advocates need to broaden our scope? What concrete things can we do for those of us who are struggling to get by? What things do you do already to help the hungry, whether food-restricted or not? Do you support SNAP funding?

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7 thoughts on “Hunger, service, advocacy, and pizza

  1. Dad says:

    My friend Bob Waldrop turned his Oklahoma City home into a Catholic Worker house, and among the many thousands of words written, is his “Better Times Cook Book”, written with the low-income cook in mind. The web address is:

    Part of his cookbook was about how to save money at the grocery store and win the grocery game. We made that into a brochure we share with families at our food pantry. It can be downloaded here:

    Click to access Better_Shopping.pdf

    Neither of those links are for celiac-specific concerns, but could easily be adapted for them, because the focus is on how resource-poor folk can provide good meals for their families.

    • Molly says:

      Thank you! I love the idea of “winning the grocery game.” I will definitely look into the possibility of distributing this at the shelter.

  2. Jess says:

    I really enjoyed reading your post. I volunteer at a shelter that serves predominantly adult men and I have thought about this a lot over the past 6 months. Almost all of the food which the men eat is processed and/or filled with gluten. Based on the numbers of residents, I know that we must be serving men with celiac disease, diabetes, and other problems which need to be managed with food. There is no type of evaluation of nutritional needs on intake, and even if there was one who needed a special diet, I am not sure how we would go about accommodating it.
    I recently watched the TEDx Manhattan series of talks on “Changing the Way we Eat.” One of the speakers is involved with a program in the Metro D.C. area in which excess produce from grocery stores and farmers’ markets is donated and then distributed to shelters and food pantries. As a part of the program, huge freezers were purchased so that large quantities of veggies and fruits could frozen and fed to the poor year round. I cannot remember her name, but I can find the link to the video of her talk if you are interested.
    I think that we as bloggers are so “young” and new at this, that right now the focus has been on just increasing awareness of Celiac Disease and supporting those of us who are already diagnosed. Your post today is a reminder that it is time to take things to the next level. I think that finding the time and energy to do so will be a worthwhile challenge. I am interested to find out what people have accomplished in other parts of the country.

    • Molly says:

      Thanks so much for the response (and for the TEDx reference—I will definitely look into that). I think one thing is that there would need to be screening more readily available. I imagine that people in homeless shelters are not getting the regular physical examinations that they should be (hell, I know many people with full-time jobs who don’t get regular physicals, and I’ve certainly been known to put off doctor’s and dentist’s visits myself).

      I would really like to see a much larger net cast in our country for celiac screening. I think that it’s too easy to look at a poor population and say, “Well, of course they’re sick; they’re poor.” We need to put just as much effort into finding and eradicating the underlying cause of illness for poor people as for higher-class people; the question is how to make that happen?

      Do you happen to know what the medical attention is like at the shelter where you volunteer? I don’t know much about this at all; honestly, writing this blog post made me realize how little I know about exactly what life is like at this shelter outside of the reading sessions.

  3. Amanda says:

    This is a great post and something I too have wondered about. Another thing to consider is that people who are on food stamps (though not all of them) may not even have the resources to prepare a “real” meal by cooking with pots and pans and a full kitchen. So they may rely even more heavily on the convenience of processed foods.

    I don’t know a lot about what life is like at shelters for families. I’ve known people who have stayed in homeless shelters, but they have been drug addicts and have an entire other set of issues. They often do not seek medical treatment and even if they do, it’s sporadic at best due to the nature of their addiction. I would assume also that there are serious drug addicts who have Celiac Disease, statistically, and I’d be willing to bet that few of them know they have it, and if they do, they likely don’t adhere to a gluten-free diet.

    In general, homelessness is such a big issue that I’m sure things like this get overlooked in favor of more “pressing” concerns like finding them long-term housing, finding them jobs, ensuring they have something to eat, and treating other serious and more visible conditions. It’s too bad and I wish there was more screening for Celiac Disease but I wonder how many people in these situations would adhere to the strict diet when they have immediate, basic needs to address.

    But like you, I don’t know all that much about what life is like in the shelter and my limited knowledge of it relates specifically to serious drug addicts.

  4. […] example, when I wrote about the connection between hunger and celiac disease, I looked into how one could donate gluten-free food. But then I thought, where was I before I […]

  5. […] written seriously about books, food, hunger, my own life, love, and doctors. I’ve gotten silly about messiness, sandwiches, […]

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