Whether we’re enjoying a ward potluck, post-activity refreshments, or taking dinner to a neighbor in need, food often plays an important role in Latter-day Saint culture.
While most of us don’t think twice about enjoying food while at church, members who have food allergies or celiac disease have a very different experience. If they’re not constantly vigilant, they can face discomfort, illness, and even life-threatening symptoms.
So how can we as Church members lighten the burden of our brothers and sisters who deal with celiac disease or food allergies and sensitivities? We asked this question on our social media pages and received lots of feedback from readers. Here are some ideas for all ward members to consider, based on those responses.
1. Understand the Seriousness of Celiac and Allergies
According to the CDC, about 8 percent of children in the US have food allergies. The most common allergies are to milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts, and tree nuts. Being exposed to these foods can cause reactions as serious as anaphylaxis, which can be deadly.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects more than two million people in the US alone. For people with the disease, eating gluten triggers an immune response that damages the small intestine’s lining over time, according to the Mayo Clinic. If left unchecked, this damage can lead to serious complications.
Sherry Johnston, a Church member whose husband has celiac disease, tells LDS Living that people with celiac need to avoid “tiny crumbs and even minuscule particles that may be on surfaces. When a celiac accidentally eats gluten, their body severely reacts. My husband has had gluten-poisoning incidents where he has felt symptoms for over a week. The symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, body aches, and chills. Yes, all from just a crumb of gluten.”
2. Listen to—and Believe—Those Who Have Celiac and Allergies
Some members who lack understanding may have a hard time believing others when they say they must completely avoid certain foods. But all members should believe and listen to others with dietary restrictions, because the symptoms are real and serious.
Speaking about skeptical ward members, Instagram user @lordzellock says, “I wish they’d stop thinking that my family was just trying to get attention.”
I wish they’d stop thinking that my family was just trying to get attention.
Other readers on Instagram shared these thoughts:
- “It is not OK to suggest that a little bit of wheat is OK for someone with celiac.” (@tazjer)
- “Please don’t say things like ‘Just take one bite’ or ‘One bite won’t hurt,’ because it will hurt.” (@nia_sunshine_girl)
- “Please don’t offer the person food with the allergens. They [may] accept [just] to be nice—but at a cost.” (@camieastmond)
3. Make an Effort to Identify Who Has Dietary Restrictions
Some members may be hesitant to speak up about their celiac, food allergies, or other dietary restrictions. For example, user @brandikhawkins says on Instagram, “My daughter’s afraid to tell her bishop she can’t eat bread, so she just gets sick every Sunday.”
My daughter’s afraid to tell her bishop she can’t eat bread, so she just gets sick every Sunday.
This kind of hesitance means that it can be extremely helpful for ward leaders and members to proactively find out who in the ward has special food requirements.
An official, formal approach can be very helpful in gathering information about dietary restrictions. For example, @hannahhiestandd suggests that ward leadership pass around a sheet in Church so members can write down their dietary restrictions. This list can then be referred to when planning activities and making ministering assignments.
4. Take Proactive Steps to Help
Even small measures can help members with dietary restrictions feel safe and cared for. Three settings of particular concern are (1) sacrament meeting, (2) other Church meetings and activities, and (3) ministering assignments.
Instagram user @bmstallings tells LDS Living, “Uninformed actions during the sacrament make it impossible for some to participate.” So what steps can help all members feel safe taking the sacrament?
The General Handbook is helpful here. It states,
“If members have food allergies or gluten intolerance, they discuss with a member of the bishopric what adaptations to make for the sacrament. As needed, the bishopric may modify the procedure for administering the sacrament to them.
“Generally, bread must be broken as part of the sacrament ordinance. However, to ensure the health and safety of a particular member, that member may provide allergen-free bread or another broken bread-like substitute in a sealed plastic bag or cup. They give this to a priesthood holder to place on a separate tray. The bishopric helps those who pass the sacrament know which members to whom the allergen-free item should be passed” (18.9.3).
Our readers provided more insights on how the sacrament can be modified to meet members’ needs:
Availability of gluten-free options. Readers suggested that some members may feel singled out if a specific tray has to be brought to them, and a couple of different solutions were mentioned:
- “In one ward I’ve attended, they had Rice Chex on every sacrament tray in individual bags.” (@kathy.jerry0904)
- “We [designated one row of the chapel] only gluten free because there are four families in our ward that need it.” (@janice.roundy.5)
- “Could all sacrament bread be gluten free so I’m not singled out?” (@sharon_long4)
Sherry Johnston notes an obstacle to attempting to make all sacrament bread gluten free: “Our bishop once suggested the whole ward switch to Rice Chex for the sacrament. This was very kind and considerate; however, the rest of the stake uses the same sacrament trays and puts bread on them. … The risk of cross-contamination is too high.” She points out that all wards in a building would need to get on board with serving gluten-free bread only.
Danger of cross-contamination. Johnston also tells LDS Living, “Even the Ziploc bag in which [my husband] keeps his sacrament needs to be opened by me or one of our kids. If he touches it, he can get tiny particles of gluten on his fingers (because the bag touched the surrounding bread), which would then be ingested when he partakes of his sacrament.”
Several other readers noted concerns about gluten-free bread coming in contact with gluten:
- Because of cross-contamination, “[Leaders] can’t just throw a rice cake in the same bread tray.” (@br00k1ee)
- “Young men need to be so careful with the sacrament. I have watched bread touch my loved ones’ gluten-free option because they weren’t careful.” (@lurashultis)
- “That hand sanitizer won’t protect me from gluten. You must wash your hands.” (@mary.ellen.beers)
[Leaders] can’t just throw a rice cake in the same bread tray.
No matter the approach, instruction is important. “There should be proper training in every ward for handling celiac sacrament,” says @keestandmari.
Potlucks, Refreshments, and Other Church Meetings
Some Church activities involve serving meals or refreshments, which require special care to safely involve those with allergies or celiac. “It’s OK to invite us to activities inside and outside of church with food. We still love being included!” writes @alyb007.
When food is served, transparency is critical to make sure people know what’s in the food being offered. One commenter shared how a turkey was served at her ward activity, but because the recipe was a “family secret,” nobody was told that the bird was cooked in peanut oil—and the commenter suffered life-threatening complications when she ate some.
In cases where gluten- or allergy-free options are offered, be mindful of who needs those options. “If something is marked allergen-free, please let the people with allergies take it first!” says @caroline._daniel.
Ideally, gluten- and allergy-free options would be offered at these events, but if that’s not feasible, @nia_sunshine_girl says, “If serving food at an event, tell people before so we can bring our own food if needed!”
Speaking of planning potluck events like “linger longers”—where ward members remain at the church after Sunday meetings to socialize—@tanbanan_13 said, “So helpful if YSA Linger Longers had gluten-free options. Call a gluten-free eater to be on the planning committee!”
Call a gluten-free eater to be on the planning committee.
And on the topic of other church meetings, several readers called for greater awareness. For example, @theautonut asks that members refrain from bringing food and candy to Primary—a practice that can make kids with allergies or celiac feel left out. Another option would be to bring allergen- and gluten-free options, as long as you’re 100 percent confident you know which children have dietary restrictions.
And in wards with children with nut allergies, @lindalooslc says, “Please, don’t bring peanut butter sandwiches to church for your child to eat.” In some cases, just having peanut butter in the same area as an allergic child can be dangerous.
Ministering brothers and sisters sometimes like to bring meals or treats to individuals or families. In these instances, it’s important to specifically ask about the dietary restrictions of whomever you’re serving.
For members with dietary needs, having someone take a little extra time can go a long way in helping them feel seen. By contrast, if someone knows there’s a need but ignores it, others can feel unseen or ignored. One commenter said, “My ministering sisters knew I was gluten-free and always dropped off cookies I couldn’t eat. I felt unimportant. Nothing makes us feel more loved or ministered to than when you remember treats for us too.”
Nothing makes us feel more loved or ministered to than when you remember us too.
One reader suggests that ward leaders can have a role in informing ministering brothers and sisters if someone they minister to has dietary restrictions: “Include food issue info with ministering assignments! So many wasted treats have been left with me!”
If you know about a dietary restriction, it’s a good idea to get specific details directly from the source if you plan to bring food. Some with celiac, for example, may feel comfortable eating food that another member prepared with gluten-free ingredients. But some may not feel OK doing so, because even if gluten-free ingredients are used, there’s still the risk of cross-contamination in a non-gluten-free kitchen.
In all cases, be sure to ask about such preferences rather than assuming. Fortunately, store-bought allergy- and gluten-free options are usually a safe bet.
Even Small Efforts Can Help Lighten Burdens
In our church meetings and callings, a little bit of awareness can go a long way to lighten the burdens of those who face unwanted challenges—“It is not our choice to have this disease!” says @nannacynthia.
And as @polleeashby shares, “Catering to allergies doesn’t have to be intimidating. Just keep it simple.”