By Kelly Underwood at Triumph Dining
For some kids, the biggest problem lunchtime poses isn’t where to sit, but what to eat. Unfortunately, gluten-free accommodations for your children aren’t always easy to get, and there’s no one sure-fire path to pursue.
Sometimes it’s just luck -- some schools are simply better at accommodating the gluten-free diet than others. And for the schools that are not as good with the gluten-free diet, parents have become dedicated and creative lunch-packers. While there’s no simple ABCs to having a gluten-free student, knowing your options is a good first step.
A Right to a Gluten-Free Meal?
One approach parents have used is a 504 plan, named for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It spells out that individuals with a disability must be treated like any other individual when participating in federally funded programs. Now your child is probably perfectly healthy, so why would you do this? Schools participating in the National School Lunch Program, may not deny medically required meals to a child determined to be ‘disabled.’ The determination of whether a student has a disability is made on a case-by-case basis. A number of individuals have qualified for gluten-free meals because they have celiac disease. The process can be daunting and the outcome depends, in large measure on your physician, and the cooperation of your child’s school.
The American Celiac Disease Alliance has sample 504 plans, physician statements and other key information in place on their web site. Please visit http://americanceliac.org where you’ll find helpful information on putting a 504 plan in place at your child’s school. While you are there, consider donating to this worthwhile endeavor.
After all, shouldn’t kids be entitled to a safe meal?
When investigating schools for their safety standards and academic rigor, parents can also check out schools’ policies on handling food intolerances and diseases. Fixed plans for dealing with celiac disease can help a child stay gluten-free at school, while conversely, the lack of a system leaves room for trouble.
Alison St. Sure is able to keep her daughter gluten-free as she attends preschool in the San Francisco Bay area in part because she investigated preschools’ policies for allergies and intolerances. According to St. Sure, the school her daughter attends now posts a list of all the children and their allergies and intolerances in each classroom. But not all schools are so organized. As St. Sure looked at potential preschools, she said she encountered some with lax policies or no system at all. “I didn’t feel comfortable with that,” she said.
While an over arching policy is important, don’t overlook the small things. St. Sure said she kept an eye out for schools’ cleanliness and messiness when she was searching for a preschool for her daughter, as she took it for a sign of how organized they are. “When I did preschool tours, I had a very critical eye,” she said.
Helping and Communicating with Teachers
If your child’s school does not have a policy for handling the gluten-free diet or you want your needs to be heard on a more personal level, building up a relationship with your child’s teacher can help you keep them gluten-free at school. This can mean expressing the child’s needs to the teacher directly, as well as taking it upon yourself to make accommodating your child easier.
A way St. Sure does this is with pre-made letters that can be found on her blog, Sure Foods Living (http://surefoodsliving.com). The letter explains that the child has celiac disease and cannot have gluten, asks the teacher to contact the nurse or parent or simply not give the child something if they are unsure if it is safe, and also has room for parents to leave their contact information and other comments. “The goal is to always make it easy on the teachers and know that the teachers have such a hard job,” St. Sure explained.
Giving your child a gluten-free dining card to keep with him or her at school as an alert to teachers and parents to their disease also may prevent run-ins with gluten-containing food.
Communicating with and helping your child’s teachers regularly also means a better chance of staying informed of non-regularly scheduled events that could be problematic for your child. For students in preschool or grade school, birthdays or class parties pop up frequently; while commonly fun events, these are potentially dangerous for those with celiac. St. Sure said situations like these can cause problems for her but that her daughter’s teacher tries to inform her of them ahead of time.
A head’s up about pajama day allowed her to step in and take charge. “They wanted to have a breakfast treat for the kids,” St. Sure said. “So they actually asked me if I’d like to…make something, so I did.” The class received a bunch of muffins made by St. Sure, all gluten- and allergy-free.
Looking at schools’ systems for accommodating dietary needs, helping and building a relationship with teachers, and getting creative can not only bring a child with celiac a more satisfying school experience but greater peace of mind for their parents. School can be difficult enough for kids. Let celiac disease be one less worry.
Triumph Dining publishes the best-selling The Essential Gluten-Free Grocery Guide and The Essential Gluten-Free Restaurant Guide, featuring 30,000 gluten free food items and over 4,700 gluten-free-friendly restaurants, respectively. Both guides are updated annually. For more information, please visit http://www.triumphdining.com.