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Gluten-Free Glutton: How Schools Are Handling Students Special Dietary Needs

August 12, 2015
Source: Florida Times Union, FL

If you go out to eat, youve undoubtedly noticed that more and more restaurants are offering gluten-free menus, or noting gluten-free items on their regular menus.

Whether theyre doing this to accommodate those of us who cant eat gluten at all or doing it to appeal to the rest of the masses dining under the illusion that gluten free is healthier, its definitely making it easier to find gluten-free food to eat.

But with a new school year starting, I found myself wondering if children with celiac disease or some other type of gluten intolerance are having the same experience in their school cafeterias. Are they able to find gluten-free items on cafeteria menus, and are the cafeterias equipped to handle gluten-free requests at all?

When I contacted Northeast Florida school districts, I found that the answer is yes, the schools do have programs in place to accommodate students with gluten issues or other types of food allergies.

I actually thought this might be a non-issue, based on conversations Ive had in the past with parents of children who have celiac disease. These parents generally prefer to pack lunches for their kids themselves, to ensure they are getting safe meals free from any gluten contamination.

According to Duval County Public Schools, there are currently 81 students registered for meals under the special diets program, which would cover gluten intolerance, peanut allergies or other food allergies.

That is an extremely small number, considering there were nearly 129,000 students in the school system at the end of last year.

Based on percentages, there could be as many as 1,000 students in DCPS with celiac disease, and likely a few thousand more with some type of non-celiac gluten intolerance. That doesnt even count the students who require special diets because of other food allergies.

So yes, it does appear that most students with special dietary needs are bringing their lunches from home, but it is good to know that schools have procedures in place to provide safe meals for students who need them.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture actually requires schools to provide lunches for children with special dietary issues, like celiac disease, but the rules are somewhat murky.

The USDA guidelines say under the Americans with Disabilities Act, schools have to provide lunches for students with “severe food allergies,” although they also say “children with food allergies or intolerances do not have a disability.”

But reading on, the guidelines then say “when in the licensed physicians assessment, food allergies may result in severe, life-threatening (anaphylactic) reactions, the childs condition would meet the definition of disability, and the substitutions prescribed by the licensed physician must be made.”

There is no mention of “gluten” in the guidelines, but a USDA spokesman assured me that these provisions cover children who would have severe reactions to gluten.

Duval County schools have standard operating procedures to handle the situation once a physician establishes that a student requires a special diet. The procedures include training for cafeteria staff.

“They will need information regarding the specific food allergy and how to check ingredients on products to ensure the products do not contain the allergen, how to ensure the child with the allergy does not consume the food, and what substitutions if any are able to occur within the specified menu,” according to the DCPS procedure document.

That sounds like the same thing parents do to prepare safe meals for their celiac children.

Other area school districts also have programs in place to handle meals for gluten-free students.

“Nassau County schools provide gluten-free items on the menu daily and many options can be made gluten free by eliminating the bun. We offer fresh fruit, unlimited vegetables, fresh salad bars, fat free milk and 100 percent fruit juice every day,” said Lauren Jones, director of Food and Nutrition Services, by email. “Food and Nutrition Services also provides nutrition and allergen information with interactive, online menus and a free app for your smart phone,” she said.

Clay County schools offer gluten-free breakfasts and lunches to all students who are diagnosed by a physician with celiac disease, said Elise Fenstermaker, coordinator of food and nutrition services. “The menus go along with the regular school district menus as much as possible, yet provide options for these students,” she said by email.

Although there are lunch programs in place, there are other issues to contend with. The biggest problem Ive heard about from parents of celiacs is the handling of special events in the classroom. A class will have a cupcake or pizza party and the kids with gluten issues cant eat them, which will leave them feeling left out.

Ive written about this issue before. It seems the best solution is to meet with the teacher at the beginning of the school year to explain the situation, and an understanding teacher will make the effort to ensure a student can get a gluten-free cupcake or pizza when the rest of the class is having a party. Its actually pretty easy to find these gluten-free options.

Hopefully, educators and especially cafeteria workers are becoming more knowledgeable about celiac disease and other types of food intolerances and allergies. More and more restaurants are becoming aware of how to serve those diners, and its reasonable to expect workers entrusted with the care of children should also be aware.

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