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Teen supplies those in need with gluten-free food

Pierce Keegan restocks the Acton Food Pantry’s gluten-free offerings recently. Pierce Keegan restocks the Acton Food Pantry’s gluten-free offerings recently. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Sarah Corrigan
Globe Correspondent / December 23, 2010

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Each year, Pierce Keegan receives an invitation to Project Bread’s annual kickoff breakfast for Walk for Hunger participants and sighs.

“It’s funny because there is not much I can eat there,’’ said Keegan, a 16-year-old Wayland High School sophomore who has celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes intolerance to gluten, found in products like bread, pasta, and many breakfast favorites.

For the past five years, Keegan has lived gluten-free, and, inspired by his involvement with Project Bread, touched on an idea that is more than just food for thought: “When I was doing the Walk for Hunger, I suddenly thought, ‘What if I needed food? Would I be able to get gluten-free products if I couldn’t afford them?’ ’’

Keegan, a five-year participant who has raised nearly $5,000 for Project Bread, shared his concerns with his mother, Tracy, as they approached mile eight of the 20-mile trek in May. “She didn’t have any answers and encouraged me to do something about it,’’ he said.

Shortly after the walk, Pierce’s Pantry was founded, and the organization will officially launch on Jan. 1 as a collector and distributor of gluten-free products to local food pantries. Keegan has received donations from 12 manufacturers, and collected nearly 800 pounds of gluten-free food.

The Acton Food Pantry in Boxborough is the first pantry to make Keegan’s gluten-free products available to clients, and has also agreed to provide emergency bags of gluten-free food for those in need.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to eat and have access to gluten-free food,’’ said Keegan, “but there are many celiacs out there who can’t afford it, and have to make choices between either eating unsafe foods or not eating at all.’’

It is estimated that about 30,000 people in Greater Boston have celiac disease, and 1 in 133 across the country. Only a small percentage are properly diagnosed, according to Lee Graham, who is president of a Boston-based celiac support group, Healthy Villi, and a supporter of Pierce’s Pantry.

When left unchecked by proper diet, a gluten intolerance can cause severe damage to the small intestine, and ultimately blocks absorption of nutrients from food into the body. It can cause symptoms ranging from vomiting and rashes to, in Keegan’s case, delayed growth due to lack of nutrition.

“The problem for needy families living with celiac disease is that a gluten-free diet is essential, but also expensive,’’ said Graham, who said she typically sees gluten-free pasta sold for $8 a pound. “For people who are on the border of trying to afford groceries, this diagnosis can put them over the edge.’’

For Keegan, hearing one person’s story was inspiration enough to aim toward expanding Pierce’s Pantry nationwide, and eventually accommodating other food allergies.

’“The Acton Food Pantry told me about this woman they gave a whole bag of gluten-free products to and the woman started crying,’’ said Keegan. “It showed me that this could really make a difference, after hearing how just one bag of food changed another person’s life so drastically.’’

giving spirit

Some volunteer because of challenges they themselves have faced. Others look out on the world and see a need they can fill. But whether providing aid to rural villages in Guatemala or bringing a smile to a sick child close to home, these local teenagers are making a difference.