Barriers to Gluten Free Meals at School
Preparing your child for meals at school can be a challenging aspect of celiac disease and gluten intolerance. We live in a rural community and my four children (all with celiac disease) attend a smaller public school. There are about 350 students in our high school and statistics would say 1% have celiac disease and 6% have non-celiac gluten intolerance. This would translate to 25 of the 350 kids in our high school having some form of gluten intolerance. The actual numbers are quite a bit lower as the majority of the 25 are not yet diagnosed (many won't be until adulthood).
Currently, in our high school, there are actually four students that I am aware of who need gluten free meals. When my kids were first diagnosed in 2017, asking the school cooks to prepare gluten free meals for the tiny minority seemed like a big request. The training, time, and expense it would require seemed like an enormous burden given it would only benefit a few kids in the entire school district. Despite this, I did try to communicate the need for accommodations with the school principal and head cook and they just were not very receptive or supportive of the idea at the time. I knew it would not be an easy task to get this implemented in our school kitchen. I couldn’t blame them, as I realized how cumbersome these changes were in my own kitchen - not exactly painless.
Over the past three years, my kids have become very accustomed to the morning routine of packing lunch. They are old enough to be pretty independent with the process. As an added benefit, I never have to worry about cross-contamination because I know their food is safe, as long as it is prepared in my own kitchen. The kids are often in after school activities, sometimes traveling, which means there are days they need lunch and a cooler with supper and extra snacks. They don't have the luxury of being able to eat at McDonald's when the bus stops. Some parents even take turns organizing sack lunches for the team when the kids are on the road - but gluten free sack lunches are often not considered.
These are problems you learn to work through when you have a child with dietary restrictions. You teach your kids how to plan ahead, prepare meals, and make healthy choices. You teach them it is OK to eat differently than others and it is always a good choice to prioritize nutrition and health. You learn to make the best of a situation that is not always convenient but certainly not a crisis.
Implementing a Gluten Free Meal Program
You might be wondering, “Is it possible for my child to have access to gluten free meals at school?” The answer is YES it is quite possible. In fact, after giving it a lot of consideration, this year I decided to make another request for the school to provide a gluten free meal plan. My kids have been packing their own lunch every day for the past three school years. They should have access to lunch at school just like all the other kids. This school year, 2020, my four celiac children were finally served gluten free hot lunch at school. So far, they are very happy with the meals and they have not gotten sick. If you feel it is the right thing for your child, then I strongly urge you to start the process. Chances are, there will be many more children in the future that will benefit from having a gluten free food service at school. YOU are the best advocate for your child! Here is an excellent website that offers additional thoughts about sending your gluten free child to school: https://www.verywellhealth.com/gluten-free-school-cafeteria-lunches-563028
Celiac Disease and the 504 Plan
To start, you must know that celiac disease is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Therefore, students in public schools with celiac disease qualify for special accommodations under a 504 plan. This document is designed to legally protect the rights of children with conditions that pose a significant barrier to learning or functioning in school - this includes celiac disease. The plan outlines special accommodations that will help your child thrive in school. This plan will also protect your child from discrimination, and help provide them with equal opportunities (like meals at school)! More details on a 504 plan here.
You may not need a 504 plan if your school is willing to provide the necessary accommodations without one. For example, maybe your school already has experience with celiac disease through interaction with other students or staff in the district. They may already have protocols for providing gluten free meals as well as other accommodations to keep your child safe. Or, maybe they are willing to learn how to accommodate for your child without a 504 plan.
Team Meeting at School
When your child is diagnosed, I advise you to set up a team meeting that should include: the parent/guardian, principal, school nurse, classroom teacher, and head cook. You should discuss specific plans and expectations for your child including:
- Provide a letter from your child’s health care provider. I built a letter from doctor template just for this purpose! All your provider has to do is fill in a few blanks, print, and Violà - done! Painless for you and the doctor.
- A plan for appropriate food service training of kitchen staff. If not already trained, there are many online and on-site programs available. I outlined some of the programs in the letter from your doctor. It helps to have one main cook overseeing this process. This cook can be your main contact throughout the school year.
- Discuss if a microwave will be available in the event your child brings his/her own lunch to school.
- Discuss a plan for days when special treats are brought into the classroom such as birthday treats or holiday treats. (I suggest you provide the teacher with a supply of your child’s favorite gluten free treats/candy at the beginning of the year). Here is a letter template you can edit and give to your child’s teacher.
- A meal plan for field trips
- A plan for the student when he/she has tummy pain, headache, nausea, or symptoms that may be related to gluten exposure. School staff needs to understand your child may need to get to a bathroom quickly or see the school nurse.
- Discuss whether a 504 plan is necessary for this student. A model 504 plan is available here.
- Make sure the school has your up-to-date contact information in the event they would need to reach you.
Good Communication is Key to Success
This should get you off to a good start. Remember, good communication is key to the successful implementation of accommodations for your child at school. Get to know a head cook who is familiar with your child and the gluten free meal plan. Don't be afraid to ask questions. It is important you check in regularly with your child. Make sure they like the meals and are eating well at school. Most importantly, make sure they aren't getting sick or visiting the nurse frequently. Stay up to date on their well-child visits and make sure they are growing at a healthy rate. If concerns arise, don't hesitate to set up a school meeting. You are your child's best advocate!
Don't forget to check out the letter templates below which I created to get things off to a good start at school!