A Day in the Life: A Gluten-Free Advocate

Alice Photo 1For Alice Bast, founder and president of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, it’s not an exaggeration to say that no two days are alike.

Her role takes her around the country to make sure those with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity get the information and support they need. Her work within the gluten-free community is matched in importance by her efforts to raise awareness outside of it.

Bast was diagnosed with celiac disease 21 years ago after spending years trying to find the source of health problems that led to a stillbirth, multiple miscarriages and a baby born at only 3 pounds. These years were also marked by debilitating physical symptoms and mental and emotional strain.

In 2003 Bast founded NFCA, which is based in Philadelphia, to make sure no one else would have to go through the same thing.

We talked in June about what her atypical “typical” day looks like. And she emphasized that one thing that’s always the same is her attempt to make a difference on behalf of the gluten-free community.

What time do you wake up? 

I wake up at 5:45 a.m. I take my medication because I have thyroid disease. I have to wait a half an hour until I can eat. It’s a fact of the matter. Then I work out. I’m pretty athletic. I either go for a run or go into our basement and get on the stepper.

What’s for breakfast?

When I’m home, breakfast is typically a smoothie that has lots of greens and good stuff in it, or I’ll make myself eggs. When I’m on the road, it’s a whole different routine. During May, which is Celiac Awareness Month, I was probably only home for about five days. Otherwise, I traveled for speaking engagements and conferences.

After breakfast, I water the plants and feed the birds. I get ready for work so I can be there by 8:30 a.m.

Do you check your phone, email or social media before you get to work?  

I used to go right to my computer and phone and start emailing, texting and checking Facebook. Now, it depends on what’s going on in my life.

If I have something on my mind I can’t help it, and I go to my email. I don’t look at Facebook in the morning because I will never get to work. I look at my phone to see if my kids have sent me a text message. I don’t have breakfast with them anymore because they are 21 and 27 and away from home. They know that’s a great time to reach me.

Once I pick up my Android I start reading emails. I have to admit, eight days out of 10, I do a cursory review of my emails. I do get about a 150 emails a day and a number of phone messages.

When I get to the office, I don’t sit and answer emails all day long. I work with our communications group for social media because I have to run the organization.

Alice Photo 2 What’s an average morning like for you?

I do tend to go to shows and conferences a lot. I’m not always in office, but when I’m in the office, it’s busy. My schedule is pretty much booked solid.

We have two programs areas: our diagnosis campaign and our healthcare outreach. There is always the GREAT restaurant training, and right now we have a grant from the Food and Drug Administration to study gluten and medications.

So, I typically have morning meetings whether they are phone calls or face-to-face. I do make sure that I chunk out time in my day so I can take a step back and look at the big picture. I spend time working with my board of directors and do some strategic planning.

What’s for lunch? 

Even though we have people in the office who don’t have celiac disease, to make our lives uncomplicated, our lunchroom is completely gluten free.

I don’t know if there is a typical lunch, but I always make food from scratch and eat very healthfully. If I have salmon the night before, I’ll bring salmon in. I used to love to eat yogurt, but I feel like I have overdone that.

Some days I make a salad and put everything on it. It might be goat cheese or cranberries. I try to eat from my own garden. We have snap peas now and just had fresh asparagus. I love avocado and will cut it in half and slice it and eat the entire avocado.

Some days are very different. For example, an Irish gluten-free bread company had come in, and we got samples. So, I actually made myself a grilled cheese sandwich.

 What’s surprising about your day?

When I get overwhelmed with technology, I like to go into the woods for a walk. People see me dressed up in a suit all the time. They don’t see the side of me that is pretty basic.

If I’m struggling with something, my best thinking is done when I go into nature. For some people that “aha” moment comes when they are asleep. The “aha” moment comes from me when I’m taking a walk in the woods.

My husband loves to cook. That may be surprising. He shares the responsibility. I’m very lucky. He loves to experiment with all kinds of grains. He’s taught me how to be a better cook.

What’s your favorite part of the day?

My favorite part is when we feel that NFCA has had a win. A win for us is when someone tells us a story of how we’ve helped them. At a Phillies’ game recently a little boy put his arms around my leg and said, “Thank you for my gluten-free hot dog. In a bun!” It’s the little things, the thank you, that let you know you have made a difference.

But we work a lot on the big picture. We are working with scientists and on empowerment and education. Every once in a while you stop and say, “Wow, that’s pretty incredible knowing that I made a difference.” When it comes down to it, I do this because I want to help people. I want them to be healthy.

The other favorite part of my day is spending time with my family and being able to talk about what’s important to all of us. Just simply holding hands.

How late do you work?

We are in a building with many other offices. When I walk out to the parking lot, my husband asks, “Why are you always the last one?” My staff is also always the last to leave. They are very dedicated, and I am really fortunate.

 What’s for dinner?

Believe it or not, we are having turkey tonight. I don’t think we’ve ever had turkey in June before, but my husband put it in the oven because we hadn’t cooked this turkey. And we have a fair amount of people to feed tonight. My daughter is coming with her fiancé and his parents. I set the table over the weekend because I’m too busy to get to it tonight. We’ll also have salad and fresh vegetables.

What have you learned from working in an advocacy role? 

I’ve learned that it’s very complicated, and you need to have patience.

How has founding and serving as NFCA’s president changed you?

It gives me appreciation for the little things in life. It takes a team to make a difference, but one person can contribute in a way that has impact. It gives me hope for the future.

Guest blogger Susan Cohen regularly writes the New for You column for Gluten-Free Living and also contributes to the In the Mix column.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)