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Area’s first gluten-free food pantry opens in Easthampton

To accommodate many clients with allergies to gluten, the Easthampton Community Center is now offering a section within its food pantry that offers a selection of gluten-free food.

Executive Director Robin Bialecki said the community center started providing gluten-free food to needy Easthampton residents with a range of conditions caused by an intolerance to gluten, a protein found in some grains. One in 133 Americans has celiac disease, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation.

“We needed to address the issue because more and more now we’re seeing families with one or two members who are gluten-intolerant,” she said. Out of the roughly 670 families the center provides groceries to weekly, about 10 families have gluten-intolerant members who aren’t supposed to eat the cereal, bread and other items they receive, she said.

Bialecki realized how expensive gluten-free food is when she tried to find it at the Western Massachusetts Food Bank and other stores to offer it at the food pantry. “A gluten-free cake mix will cost $9, when a regular one would be $2,” she said.

“In talking to local doctors, they said that especially in families with children, gluten-free is so expensive that parents are giving their kids some gluten-free food and some not, so the kids are still sick,” she said. “But they can’t afford to do more than that. We’re hoping to help and give them as much gluten-free food as possible.”

They will need a note from a physician stating they are gluten-intolerant to qualify, she said.

Building the gluten-free pantry hasn’t been easy. The food is expensive and requires more refrigeration because it typically has a shorter shelf life than the alternative. Bialecki said she started contacting companies that make gluten-free food to request donations or contracts to buy the food in bulk at wholesale prices. “We have cereal, cake mixes, pasta, soup, and we’re getting more,” she said.

To store the food, the Community Center also purchased two new refrigerators with a $3,000 grant from Easthampton’s Wireless Zone store. Two freezers were donated by local families.

•••

What goes around
comes around

After the combined efforts of a few city residents, a wedding ring that sat in the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce lost and found for nearly 10 years was returned to its owner last month.

“It was absolutely amazing,” said the ring’s owner, Bonnie Stoddard, 53, who now lives in Jacksonville, Fla. “It was missing for 10 years and 1,100 miles away, and through the grace of God we’re back together again.”

The ring was found at the chamber of commerce on Union Street in 2003, and though the organization advertised in the newspaper to try to find its owner, no one claimed it and it remained in the lost and found box.

Earlier this year, chamber President Patrick Brough said he became curious again about the ring and called City Clerk Barbara LaBombard to see if any of the marriage certificates filed in her office matched the initials and the date engraved on the ring. There was one match: Michael and Bonnie Stoddard, married Sept. 16, 1978.

The couple and their two daughters moved south in 2007, but one of Brough’s co-workers at Finck & Perras Insurance knew the couple’s daughter, Jamie O’Connor, and contacted her about the ring via Facebook. Bonnie Stoddard said she cried when her daughter showed her the Facebook message about the ring on Feb. 1.

“It was mind-blowing,” she said. “It was Pat Brough’s detective work, it just drove him crazy that the ring never was claimed by its owner.”

Stoddard said she took her wedding ring off in 2003 when her late husband gave her a 25th anniversary ring. “I put on the new ring and I thought I put the wedding band in my jewelry box,” she said. She doesn’t know how it got to the chamber office and didn’t noticed it was missing until four years later, after her family had moved to Georgia.

“I prayed about it, but then life goes on and I forgot about it,” she said.

She thought of it much more when her husband died in 2008. “Many times since then I thought about how if I had the rings together I could give them to my children,” she said. “Now, I can share them with my girls.”

Brough mailed her the wedding band a few weeks ago and she said it is now safely stowed alongside her late husband’s ring.

“I will smile every time I talk about this story,” Brough said Thursday. “I like to think that I did what anyone else would have done. I can’t express enough how great it felt when I knew the ring was back in her possession.”

•••

Knapik in city today

Residents can speak with state Sen. Michael R. Knapik (R-Westfield) or an aide today at the Council on Aging and Enrichment Center at 19 Union St. as part of Knapik effort to hold office hours around his district this week.

Knapik or an aide will be available for questions or comments at the center from 9 to 10 a.m. before he visits Southampton Town Hall at 10:30 a.m.

“Office hours offer an excellent opportunity to meet with my constituents in an informal setting,” Knapik said in a statement. “I encourage anyone who has an issue involving state government to stop by.”

Knapik is also available at 413-562-6454 or michael.knapik@masenate.gov.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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