Founder and Board President of S.A.F.E. – Supplying Allergy Friendly and Emergency – Food Pantry
Member of FoodASC since 2016
Please tell us about yourself and why you are interested in food allergies.
My story begins in 2004 when I married my wonderful, supportive husband, Allan. I was forced to quit my corporate job due to my mystery illness since I spent most of my time either in the bathroom or bed. My doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me despite losing almost 30 pounds in a short period of time.
After over six years of uncertainty, I was finally diagnosed with an extreme case of non-celiac gluten sensitivity where even the smallest particle of gluten, the size of the head of a pin, or cross contact makes me severely ill, sometimes for weeks at a time. Plus, I have developed additional food allergies and intolerances over time. It can be hard to live in the world when you are trying so hard to avoid the things that make you sick.
Please tell us about your organization.
I have always had a passion for community service stemming from the age of 13 when I started volunteering with the American Red Cross. My love of talking on the phone led to a position as a receptionist. I soon expanded my skills to become a service to military family caseworker, acquired disaster training, and taught others in CPR/First Aid and babysitting – all before graduating from high school. Growing up in Florida, emergency preparedness was a way of life, especially after experiencing the multiple hurricanes that hit Florida in 2004.
My true aha moment came in January 2014 when I was taking a social entrepreneurship class at the local community college. I realized I could turn my worst fear – not having access to gluten free and allergy -friendly food when I needed it into something that could truly help others. Although the idea started with assisting people post-emergency, I realized that there is a need every day for families who are food insecure. That was when the S.A.F.E. Food Pantry moved from an idea to my personal mission.
The S.A.F.E. –Supplying Allergy Friendly and Emergency –Food Pantry is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization based in Howard County, Maryland. At this time, we are 100% donor funded through monetary and food donations.
Our mission is to provide gluten free and allergy-friendly food to those in need. The S.A.F.E. Food Pantry relies solely on volunteers to fulfill our mission. Without their countless volunteer hours, the leadership of our Board of Directors, and guidance of our Advisory Council, none of this would be possible.
Our vision is a healthy community where all individuals and families have access to the safe food they need to thrive.
Describe a challenging experience you had related to food allergies and your lessons learned.
One of the most challenging situations is receiving a phone call or email message from a prospective client who lives outside our service area. They are searching for safe food and simply cannot find it in their community. At this point, we can refer them to resources in their community and encourage them to keep asking for gluten free and allergy-friendly food from those resources. Awareness of this critical need must come from all sources possible.
Right now, our top priority is our pilot program with the Howard County Food Bank. By focusing our attention on one location, we can develop the proper safety processes and procedures to ensure success. Future plans will be to seek additional partnership opportunities, to expand the S.A.F.E. Food Pantry regionally and eventually nationwide.
Describe a rewarding experience you had related to food allergies.
There is nothing more rewarding than experiencing the delight of a client who can finally find the safe food that they need to thrive. Imagine having to find transportation to a food bank, stand in line, fill out paperwork, and finally get to the shopping area to find that there is no safe food for your family. Those clients who need gluten free and allergy-friendly food are so excited to feel included, and for that short period of time don’t have to make the tough choice between going hungry or eating something that can make them sick.
What motivates you to do what you do?
I consider myself fortunate to be able to afford the safe food I require. The need for special dietary food for medical conditions including food allergies, celiac disease, and gluten sensitivity does not discriminate based on income. If anything, the lower income population is forced to make tough choices when it comes to food every day.
At the same time, circumstances can change for anyone at any time. A major life change like a death in the family, loss of employment, new medical diagnosis, or even a natural disaster can shift someone from the ability to afford safe food to needing assistance.
I would love to see a S.A.F.E. Food Pantry in every community, so we can give hope to those with special dietary conditions no matter where they live.
Do you have a go-to resource? If so, what is it and why is it useful?
The S.A.F.E. Food Pantry is extremely fortunate to have Advisory Council members that serve as our go-to resources. Maureen Burke from One Dish Cuisine has vast knowledge and loads of real world experience when it comes to serving gluten free and allergy friendly food. She is assisting us in developing safety protocols for our food pantry that are mindful of those with special dietary conditions including food allergies, celiac disease, and gluten sensitivity. Her One Dish Cuisine blog, newsletter, and social media postings provide insight and incredible passion for providing safe food.
What do you wish other people knew about food allergies and what’s one action that can be performed to increase knowledge and awareness in the general population?
One of the most surprising things I hear from people is that they never thought about donating gluten free and/or allergy-friendly food items to their local food pantries, despite having food allergies, celiac disease, or gluten sensitivity. Even if your local food pantry does not have dedicated shelf space for gluten free and allergy-friendly products, by donating these non-perishable food items, you are teaching them about special dietary conditions. I recommend putting a note on any donated products as to why you are donating this item for additional education and impact.
What advice would you give to someone just embarking upon this journey?
Please don’t give up! A new diagnosis can seem overwhelming, but it is an opportunity for you to grow and expand your horizons. If I were not affected by gluten sensitivity, food allergies, and food intolerances, I never would have changed my eating habits for the better and started the S.A.F.E. Food Pantry. Each and every one of us has the opportunity to take something that can be perceived as a weakness, and turn it into something that can benefit the community.
Donna DeCosta, Founder FoodASC.com
New to FoodASC?
Don’t miss out on future articles! Join the community today.