How do schools manage gluten restrictions in the lunchroom?

March 6, 2018

How do schools manage gluten restrictions in the lunchroom?

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- As adults we can manage our own food restrictions. Not only do we have the ability to identify when we feel off, consult a doctor and find the underlying issue, but we can comprehend the necessary dietary changes and adhere to the eliminations – like gluten.

It’s not quite so easy with kids. For those who have to cut gluten because of celiac disease, that starts with finding a diagnosis, which can be easier said than done. In one study, investigators determined 60 percent of children diagnosed were asymptomatic.

And even for those 40 percent that have symptoms to help steer a diagnosis, only 20-30 percent will develop stomach symptoms, the most commonly associated with celiac disease.

Other symptoms of celiac disease in children and adolescents include poor growth, weight loss, short stature, delayed puberty, poor appetite and irritability, according to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Remember, though, celiac disease is just one reason a child may eat gluten-free. A wheat allergy is entirely different, as is a non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

With all three of those present in school-age kids, their parents are under a lot of pressure to ensure gluten is removed from their child’s diet. Because a diagnosis is just the first step. Now the parent and the child have to navigate a gluten-free world.

But what happens when those gluten-free kids go to school and have the run of the lunchroom? What safeguards are in place to ensure these kids, who may not fully understand why their lunch has to be a little different than their friends’, are continuing to eat gluten-free?

I contacted Amanda Vallee, the registered dietician for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, where approximately 50 percent of the students in the district with food aversions need to avoid gluten.

This particular district relies heavily on what it calls the Special Dietary Needs Form, which is filled out by the student’s parent or guardian and taken to the district’s medical professional’s office. “There are many parts of the form, including checking off the foods to be avoided, a section to provide foods to be substituted and places for the parent or guardian and medical professional to sign,” said Vallee.

Once the form is completed by all parties, it is given to the nurse at the student’s school and scanned into the school nutrition system. Staff at the kitchen that serves the student is made aware of the allergy to ensure the guidelines are followed.

This system makes it so each student’s needs are reviewed on an individual basis.

“I go through the form and look at all of the allergens indicated,” said Vallee. “I then will go through the items that we serve and make an additional list and add any of our menu items that we serve that are gluten-free.”

The form is available for all students, but is mostly utilized for students younger than 10. The older children, especially those in high school, are more aware of their food restrictions and can manage following their diet on their own.

Remember, this procedure is for one local school district but represents a trend in awareness of what gluten is and how to help people avoid it. And the real lesson is communication is key. Without parents communicating with the district, which communicates with the lunch staff at the individual school, the student’s needs would not be met.

Of course, parents always have the ability to pack their children’s lunches and avoid any school lunch pitfalls, but that’s not always possible. Or the students might prefer to buy.

Whatever the reason, don’t be afraid to contact your school district to find out what steps are in place to ensure your children can adhere to their diets at school. Safety of students is a top priority, after all, whether that be in the classroom or lunchroom.