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From the Finicky to the Gluten-Free: How Schools Feed the Masses

Wednesday, October 5, 2016  
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By Christina Mimms, SAIS

Grilled gaucho steak. Adobo pork loin. Pumpkin bisque. Lemon dill zucchini pasta. Mojo squash. No, that’s not the menu from your favorite local restaurant. Those are some of the findings for school lunches these days. Hot dogs, pizza, and mac n’ cheese still make the lists, but schools take great efforts to provide healthy and even unique meals while also serving students and faculty with special dietary needs. From those who have allergies to others who require gluten-free dishes, the school smorgasbords can satisfy even the pickiest eaters.

Approximately one in 13 children has a food allergy, according to Food Allergy Research & Education. In addition, according to a study released in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies among children increased approximately 50% between 1997 and 2011. Eight foods cause 90% of all allergic reactions: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish. Families who prefer a meat-free or gluten-free diet also need accommodations in their food selections.

It can be easy enough for a parent to manage children’s diet when they are at home, but what happens when they go to school? Food safety tops the list of concerns but parents also want to know that their children will have a nutritious and satisfying meal. The first step is to communicate with a child’s principal, who often will connect the parent with the school’s food service. At The Bolles School in Jacksonville, FL, lunch is managed by FLIK Independent School Dining. “They have been so accommodating meeting our needs,” said Lower School Principal Carol Imfeld. “Our dietician is very open and available to parents.”

Parents of children with special dietary needs preview the lunch menu online to help them make food selections. Students may request gluten-free pasta or bread, and no dishes are made with nuts. The menu always includes a vegetarian option, such as stuffed mushrooms. Other vegetables, fruit, and yogurt are also available. Students may bring their own lunch if they need.

At Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta, 30 students in K through 6th grade have known allergies and sensitivities, according to Shelley Clifford, head of lower school. For emergency planning purposes, administrators have discussed and planned for the fact that an allergic reaction is among the most likely situations to occur. The school hosts parent education programs and also encourages children to learn how to advocate for themselves.

Sage Dining Services provides lunch at MVPS; among its offerings are an online lunch menu that allows filtrations of allergens. Parents can easily review food items and guide their children’s selections. Teachers and administrators also are well informed about students with allergies. “The younger students are, the more involved teachers are with students making choices at lunch,” Clifford said. “It can be hard for a 5-year-old to say, ‘I can’t have that.’”

No peanuts, tree nuts, or peanut butter are permitted in the K-6 cafeteria, but peanut butter is available in the 7th-12th cafeteria across campus. Options include one meat entrée and one vegetarian entrée, steamed vegetables, a deli bar, a salad bar, and regular and gluten-free bread. All salad dressings are made in-house to ensure that no allergens are part of the recipe.

Schools do well with managing food inside the cafeteria, but what about food brought for snacks, birthday parties, or the Spanish Club’s Cinco de Mayo party? Someone could easily unknowingly enter campus with a potential allergen, creating a serious situation for a fellow student.

“We try to keep everything in balance,” Clifford said. “It would be easy to say no more food at school events, but food is part of culture.”

For snacks, the school encourages healthy but also nut-free options. A teacher will communicate with her class’s parents regarding any known allergens among the students. For classroom parties, the school requests that at least one item among the food be gluten-free. For birthdays, MVPS offers an out-of-uniform day for a student instead of a party with cupcakes, which actually makes the day even happier for the birthday boy or girl. “Everyone knows it’s their birthday because they are out of uniform, and they get lots of attention and hugs throughout the day,” Clifford said.

For classroom activities that may involve food, such as a science project studying the five senses or a holiday celebration in a foreign language class, the school requires teachers to vet their projects with the administration and follow safe food guidelines.

Many schools do not require students to participate in the school lunch programs, allowing them to bring a lunch. At Evangelical Christian School in Memphis, TN, students may purchase lunch from the Piccadilly food service or eat their own lunch from home, according to Lower School Principal Paula Cowart. “Kids are regimented in so many ways that we don’t need to require the lunch program,” Cowart said.

The campus is not nut-free, but the school manages students who have allergies and labels classrooms as peanut-free if needed. Currently, there are no gluten-free students at ECS. Salad and fruit are available each day, and students enjoy Papa John’s pizza every Friday. Classroom parties are held twice per year. Peanut butter or other nuts are not allowed. “We encourage parents to send healthy options,” Cowart said. “We try not to have sugar overload.” 

At boarding schools, food plays an even more significant role. With three meals a day prepared and served to students and faculty who live on campus, the number of picky eaters grows, as does the importance of allergy management. For boarders, mom and dad aren’t there to manage any dietary issues – that job falls to the school. At Indian Springs School in Indian Springs, AL, Chef Greg Fuller and his team with FLIK have gone through extensive training regarding allergies and food sensitivities. “You definitely have to be vigilant in handling and labeling allergens in any foods,” Fuller said. “We can’t inadvertently throw something into a recipe.”

The school keeps a list of all students who have allergies, and a nurse lives on the campus to be readily available to all students. Public menus include a list of all ingredients and potential allergens. The school does not permit tree nuts or peanuts but students can pick up an individual packet of peanut butter if they wish. The dining hall makes soy milk and gluten-free items available, and serves a vegetarian entrée at every meal. “We make sure students have plenty to eat,” Fuller said.

While a nut-free, gluten-free king cake for a Mardi Gras celebration in French class might not sound too appealing, teenagers and young adults with food allergies are at the highest risk of fatal food-induced anaphylaxis, according to FARE. Schools hold a great responsibility to care for the students entrusted to them, and everyone wants to keep meal time a happy and tasty experience for all. 

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