Gluten Free Expo’s charitable roots

Saving stomachs and filling hampers are part of the mission

Margaret Dron was sorting bins at the Vancouver Food Bank when she realized something had to be done about the lack of gluten-free product donations. Earlier that week Dron had learned about Celiac disease through a friend who had just been diagnosed and was limited in what she could eat.

Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disorder causing intestinal inflammation and malabsorption of key nutrients. The symptoms — including anemia bloating diarrhea constipation migraines depression weakness and fatigue — are triggered by gluten a protein found in wheat barley and several other grains. It is estimated that as many as 300000 Canadians may have the disease. In addition a review in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 55 other health problems spanning the psychiatric neurological autoimmune and arthritic spectrums can be caused by gluten.

Dron couldn’t accept that a person with gluten sensitivities in need of help from the food bank would have to choose between being sick or starving so she pulled together a fundraising event at a small community centre. The event showcased 38 vendors selling gluten-free products and attendees were asked to donate gluten-free food items to the Vancouver Food Bank. She anticipated a turnout of 500 people. Instead 3000 showed up.

“It was a success” says Dron. “The community came out and brought tons of gluten-free food donations. Literally a ton of it — we filled up a full one-ton truck.”

Following that event Dron decided to quit her day job and devote her efforts to producing a Gluten Free Expo. Since its beginnings in 2012 the Gluten Free Expo has expanded across the country taking place annually in Vancouver Toronto Edmonton Ottawa and Calgary. The Expo hosts gluten-free vendors and experts showcasing new products and food preparation techniques.

Certified gluten-free food must be made in specialized facilities to avoid cross-contamination with products that contain gluten. Gluten-free grains like rice quinoa and millet are also not as abundant as wheat adding to the cost of production. For these reasons products labelled gluten-free are often expensive and therefore rarely donated to food banks. As more people become aware of the health issues associated with gluten sensitivity however the gluten-free lifestyle increases in popularity reducing the cost and increasing the variety of options.

In 2012 the Calgary Food Bank rolled out a gluten-free hamper program that now provides safe healthy food to about 20 families a month. The hampers contain treats from Kinnikinnik Lakeview and Care bakeries like cookies and crackers in addition to condiments fresh produce and protein dried beans and lentils.

“Cookies aren’t nutritionally valuable in a strict dietary sense” says Trudi Webster food industry co-ordinator for the Calgary Food Bank. “But there’s something about being able to say ‘I have cookies in my pantry’ that gives a person a level of comfort.”

At the first Gluten Free Expo in Calgary last year the Calgary Food Bank raised more than $600 in donations. This year the food bank is being set up to accept food donations on site and all money collected will go towards purchasing food for the gluten-free hampers (the top items on the wish list for donations are rice and gluten free pasta).

To date the Expo has raised 5000 pounds of gluten-free foods and about $4000 for food banks across Canada. “The food bank is core to how the Expo got started” says Dron. “I’m never going to lose that component no matter what city I’m in.”

At the Calgary Gluten Free Expo attendees can download a free mobile app that lists various gluten-free companies discounts coupons and where to find hot deals ( glutenfreeexpo.ca ).