Thanks to Alice Salomon Bast's dedication, people with sensitivities to wheat- and gluten-based products cannot only be liberated from the painful effects of Celiac Disease, but also be freed up to enjoy the flavors and textures that normally make eating a pleasure.
Her extensive accomplishments, including founding the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness in 2003, were spotlighted recently when she received the Philadelphia Award.
The award, arguably the most prominent local honor handed out to a Philadelphian of accomplishment, was set up in 1921 by late writer and philanthropist Edward W. Bok, recognizing that "service to others tends to make lives happy and communities prosperous."
A staggering one in 133 Americans is affected by Celiac Disease, a lifelong, inherited autoimmune condition. When these individuals eat foods containing gluten (proteins are found in all forms of wheat, including durum, semolina, spelt, kamut, einkorn and faro), it creates an immune-mediated toxic reaction that causes damage to the small intestine and does not allow food to be properly absorbed.
Symptoms include abdominal cramping, gas, bloating and extreme fluctuations in weight. Perhaps not surprisingly, there are diseases linked to CD, such as anemia, depression, infertility, fatigue, joint and bone pain, vitamin deficiencies and certain forms of cancer.
Bast's calling came to light with her own diagnosis over a decade ago, in the wake of six years worth of digestive health and fertility problems, and the death of her mother from cancer, which she later suspected may have been derived from CD.
"I had a full-term stillbirth, a two-pound baby and three miscarriages," Bast recalls. "Finally, a veterinarian friend told me that sometimes animals had sensitivity to grains they were eating.
"At the time, I was on a high carbohydrate diet that I realized was poisoning me. As it takes most people at least 10 years to be diagnosed properly, what committed me to go beyond my own diagnosis was the fact that there were national support groups that allowed diagnosed patients to help each other," including one she led in Philadelphia.
But, she allows, there was "nothing on a national level focused on funding research and raising awareness of Celiac Disease that encouraged people to get a correct diagnosis."
Bast adds that because she's had a lifelong interest in public health and preventive care, and that community service has always been an integral part of her Jewish identity, taking steps to build the foundation from the ground up was a natural passion for her to follow.
"I would say being Jewish is one of my most defining personality traits," Bast affirms.
She thinks "about how having a diagnosis helped me restore my health and reclaim my life, and how what I have learned can be shared to help others in need.
"Since then, the stories I have heard of people and their personal struggles with CD leads me to think about the importance of giving those less fortunate more access to dietary and lifestyle solutions, as well as medical care."
She notes, "Just as a diagnosis of CD can lead people to a better way of life, my helping others get there has become a way of life for me."
Once Bast made the commitment to build the foundation, she enrolled at Penn State University's certificate program in nonprofit executive management. On the way, she met people who became just as committed to the cause.
These individuals include Nancy Ginter, a veteran AT&T executive who now serves as the foundation's CEO, and Ed Snider, who made the initial donation to the NFCA, funding the foundation's first outreach programs.
She also learned during this transformative time that Philadelphia was the perfect place to set up the foundation on many levels: "I realized there was no better place than Philadelphia because of our internationally recognized universities and medical institutions, as well as some of the top chefs in the United States," she explains.
"Through these organizations, as well as the involvement of prominent families like the Banners" — Joe Banner is president of the Philadelphia Eagles, instrumental in bringing together the first Eagles-affiliated campaign, "Let's Sack Celiac" — "we could create something locally that could generate a cascading effect as we rolled out our initiatives nationwide.
"This July, we are embarking on a three-year plan, which has the principal goal of getting 1 million people diagnosed by 2015," Bast explains.
One thing Bast is especially proud of is the Celiaccentral.org website, which not only provides a variety of resources for the general public and physicians, but also a checklist that allows an individual to inventory any symptoms connected to CD.
"Now I can see how, through my passion and the others I have enlisted, our dollars are being channeled directly to chronic disease prevention and food safety."