Getting Schooled in Gluten-Free Lunches

You’ll need to plan well in advance to get your child the right food next fall

It’s spring. The flowers are blooming. The kids are going on field trips, to prom, competing in track meets and baseball games and taking their finals.

Even though the only thing you and your children may want to think about is the upcoming summer break, now is the time for parents to investigate a gluten-free school lunch menu for the new school year in the fall.

School districts across the country are making big changes to their gluten-free offerings. Many districts didn’t have any gluten-free options even five years ago. But now they have burgers (with or without a gluten-free bun), pizza, chicken nuggets and more.

This is the best time to find out what your child’s school has to offer. Even if you’ve done some checking in the past and been disappointed with limited choices, it’s worth trying again because of all the improvements in gluten-free school lunch offerings.

If your child was recently diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity or is entering a new school in the fall, it’s particularly important to begin doing the legwork this spring. It can take up to six weeks to make arrangements for gluten-free meals. Steps you take now will lead to a smoother lunch experience, especially during that critical first week of school.


Getting a gluten-free lunch

The extent to which schools have gluten-free offerings runs the gamut. Some schools do not have a gluten-free menu yet, sometimes because no one has requested it. Others have staff who are fully trained, processes in place to minimize cross-contamination and gluten-free food orders coming in. You will not know what the situation is at your school until you ask.

First go to the school nutrition office for your district. Many parents make the mistake of starting at their child’s school, but that can result in misinformation. If the school cafeteria supervisor hasn’t already had a student with a gluten-free need, they may not know the district makes gluten-free accommodations at other schools. The district nutrition officer typically oversees all cafeterias and is the decision maker.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees school nutrition services, requires basic information from the district nutrition office to get started, says Becky Domokos-Bays, director of school nutrition services for the Alexandria City Public Schools in Alexandria, Va., and vice president-elect for the School Nutrition Association.

“We have to have a letter written by a licensed medical authority that explains the medical condition and what the accommodation has to be,” says Domokos-Bays. “Since celiac disease falls under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), when kids come through we are obligated by law to accommodate.”

The 1990 ADA defines a disability as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual.” Major life activities include eating, learning, thinking and concentrating and can also affect bodily functions like the immune and digestive systems and bowel, according to the ADA.

A 504 plan, named for a section of law that describes how the ADA applies to public schools, protects students who have conditions that fall under these major life activities, according to the U.S. Department of Education. While a 504 plan is not required for a student to get gluten-free lunches at school, it may be helpful. A 504 plan will get all parties in the school on the same page about accommodating your child’s needs during the school year. Check with your school’s 504 coordinator, counselor or the special education department to start this process.

If your child needs a gluten-free diet for a reason not covered under the ADA, for example gluten sensitivity, more leeway is given to each school district in deciding whether to make lunch accommodations. A USDA guide for school food staff says each school has the discretion to accommodate a dietary allergy or intolerance that is not considered a disability but is medically certified as having special dietary requirements. The added cost of special diets may determine whether a district will allow dietary accommodations for someone not covered by the ADA.


The gluten-free lunch experience

Once you’ve determined that your child will get gluten-free lunches, the next step is to ensure that everyone who works with your child’s food is a part of a team aware of his or her needs. In addition to the cafeteria staff, the team can include the school principal, nurse, your child’s teachers and anyone who patrols the lunchroom.

“I like to meet with the parent and the lunch supervisor in May and then turn them over to the supervisor in the fall,” says Esther Motyka, a registered dietitian and site operations and safety manager for child nutrition programs for Anoka-Hennepin Schools in Anoka, Minn. About 50 of the school district’s 39,000 students use the gluten-free menu.

The students select items from the gluten-free menu ahead of time so their lunch is ready when they get to the cafeteria, Motyka says.

School districts usually order all food, including any gluten-free items, pretty far in advance, one of the reasons it’s a good idea to get in touch with the nutrition office before the end of the previous school year. It can take about three weeks to order specialty items and another few weeks for them to be delivered. To limit special orders, districts look for products that will serve a wide variety of students during their food bidding process.

“We try to look at our bids and choose something like a hamburger that can be served to every child,” Domokos-Bays explains.

It’s easy to see how all these steps take time. If you start the process this spring, you’ll be able to get the necessary letter from your physician and give the district enough of a heads-up to order food and supplies, set up a process and train staff (if they haven’t already done so).

If you wait until the very busy open house to bring this up with staff, you will end up scrambling to get the letter in time for school, which, Motyka says, could delay the whole process at the beginning of the year.


The big picture

Each year, the number of school districts with a gluten-free lunch menu grows, says Andrea Levario, executive director of the American Celiac Disease Alliance. The ACDA, a national celiac disease advocacy group, has made improved access to gluten-free school lunches one of its priorities.
Levario says schools are getting better at meeting gluten-free needs because parents of children with a medical need are asking for it. That is what Kelly Trouy and her 11-year-old son, Scott, who has celiac disease, did. They live in Frisco, Texas, and he is off to middle school in the fall.

Their district didn’t have a gluten-free menu when Kelly Trouy first asked three years ago. “We tried the school cafeteria first, and there was no level of comfort there. We went to the district and started working with a nutritionist,” Trouy says. It took them about a month to get the food, menu and training all in order. Scott Trouy’s favorite meal is a salad, burger (no bun), Baked Cheetos, bananas and frozen yogurt. The district has 46,000 students and currently serves at least 11 gluten-free students.

It took Shannon Stewart of Coon Rapids, Minn., about three months to set up her 12-year-old daughter Amissa’s gluten-free accommodations. Amissa has a wheat sensitivity and eats gluten free at a school in the Anoka-Hennepin district.

“When we went to the open house, I got Esther Motyka’s name from the lunch supervisor,” Stewart says. Because of some confusion over the physician’s letter required by the USDA, Stewart had to fill out the paperwork twice, which took extra time. Amissa’s gluten-free lunches started in December of 2013. “She can eat pizza at school. It is a dream come true for her,” Stewart says.

But sometimes planning ahead just isn’t in the cards. A gluten-free diagnosis can be made just before kindergarten, which is what happened to 5-year-old Lane Lovre of Brooklyn Park, Minn.

He started with gluten-free lunches right away in one school district, but moved to the Anoka-Hennepin district a few weeks later. Because the district serves so many gluten-free kids, his gluten-free needs were quickly met even though the school he attends hadn’t served a gluten-free student yet.

As districts get used to the idea of catering to gluten-free needs, they are also offering a greater variety of foods. For example, Chesterfield County Public Schools in Virginia has a gluten-free grilled cheese sandwich. The Scarborough School Department in Maine serves gluten-free pancakes as a breakfast alternative. Fargo Public Schools in Fargo, N.D., has gluten-free muffins and English muffins at breakfast as well as gluten-free peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chicken noodle soup during lunch.


Communication is the key

One of the key components to successfully getting a safe gluten-free lunch at school is to have open communication between the parents, school and district. “I feel better knowing if I didn’t get the answer I was looking for with the supervisor at the school, I could take it to the district,” Beth Lovre, Lane’s mother, says.

Domokos-Bays agrees. “Start at the nutrition office, and if you have trouble, then you may just have to go up the chain.” But she also recommends that parents try to be polite and patient during the process.

Parents have very common concerns about daily kitchen operations including food preparation, cross-contamination, staff training and the steps their child needs to take to get their gluten-free lunch, with no mistakes.

“Their biggest concern is, ‘Is my child going to get sick by eating here?’” Domokos-Bays says. Her Virginia district, which serves about a dozen gluten-free students, hears parents’ concerns and helps ease fears by allowing the parents and kids to read labels at any time. Plus, the district purchases separate kitchen supplies such as pans and utensils and washes them separately to reduce the chance of cross-contamination.

Trouy, the Texas mom, recommends building a relationship with a school nurse and having a 504 plan for your child. “[The nurse] will be an advocate. The 504 plan helps open that door for her,” she explains. Domokos-Bays agrees that a 504 plan helps inform all staff regarding the expectations for the gluten-free accommodations.

This spring, Trouy says she plans to notify the nutrition department about her son’s upcoming transition to middle school. She will also ask what needs to be done to get the cafeteria ready, since she is unsure if that school has made gluten-free meals before.

Stewart will do the same when Amissa moves into a new building for middle school next year.

Creating a meal for a gluten-free child can be a challenge for a school, but school nutritionists say it is one they welcome and want to do correctly. With a little patience and planning, the school and the family can see great results.

Amy Leger is family editor for Gluten-Free Living. She also blogs about gluten-free topics at Leger is married with two children. Her oldest daughter has celiac disease.