Add this to the list of challenges youngsters with severe food allergies have to put up with – getting to the school lunchroom and discovering that there’s nothing on the menu they can safely eat.
Jamie Humphrey, administrative dietician with Colorado Springs School District 11, knows that’s happened to kids. And while the district always offers a “gluten-free special of the day” for students with special dietary needs, that doesn’t always accommodate the range of students’ food allergies.
Some youngsters simply always must bring lunch from home. But some parents fear that children who never get to go through the lunch line feel left out, and they want schools to do better at ensuring allergic children always have at least some choices available.
A Denver company, Gipsee, which makes a variety of technology products for restaurants to accommodate patrons with food allergies, has teamed with the District 11 to provide a similar service to students.
System gets positive response
The AllerSchool system debuted in Colorado Springs this fall and, so far, it’s gotten good reviews from parents and food service officials.
It works like this: Parents of a child with severe food allergies register their child with the district’s Food & Nutrition Services. When they do, they’re given an identifying code that’s used to log into the district’s weekly menu website, allowing parents to see what will be served at each school each day and the exact ingredients in each menu item.
Parents can screen for certain items – common allergens such as dairy or nuts or wheat or for more exotic allergens – and feel confident that whatever items pass the screen will be safe for their child. If there’s little or nothing on a given day’s menu that a food-allergic child can safely eat, parents can order a special meal for their child.
“It’s usually something made with gluten-free bread and may not be a super-desirable item for the kids,” acknowledged Humphrey.
“But it does allow our students to eat more regular meals. Before, it was difficult. They might look out our menu and say ‘There’s nothing I can eat.’ This way, there’s no question at all. Parents have all the information at their fingertips, and with each child having a customized profile it takes away all the guesswork. … They know it will be safe.”
For Sheila Sawyckyj, mother of a first-grader with Celiac disease, the AllerSchool system has been a huge gift.
“She knows when she’s being left out,” she said of daughter Michaela, a student at Martinez Elementary School in Colorado Springs. “We warned her she would need to take her own lunch, but she saw other kids eating at school and she wanted to be like the other kids.”
Her daughter’s illness makes it difficult for her to eat products containing gluten. Many popular entrees served at school, such as pizza and spaghetti, have some gluten. But the sides – fruits and vegetables – usually do not. “So for her, it’s pretty easy,” Sawyckyj said.
Once a month, Sawyckyj goes online to check the upcoming school menus, and order a special meal for Michaela on the days needed. Michaela doesn’t care much for the gluten-free sandwiches the school offers on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so on those days she usually brings her lunch. But Tuesdays and Thursdays, when the gluten-free option is taco salad or hamburgers on gluten-free bread, she goes through the lunch line.
“She’s like a different child on those days,” Sawyckyj said. “She’s happier on lunch line days. She gets more independence. She likes being able to go through the lunch line, and there’s nothing on the salad bar that can be cross-contaminated. Michaela feels secure, and she feels she has the chance to just be one of the kids. She doesn’t feel different.”
Product inspired by daughter’s experiences
Denver businessman Dilip Chopra understands Sawyckyj’s stress in trying to balance her daughter’s special needs with the emotional need to fit in. He’s the co-founder of Gipsee – and the father of a food-allergic daughter.
“Our product was inspired by my own situation with my daughter,” he said. “She’s a senior in high school now, but throughout her growing-up years she’s had food allergies, and she could never eat in the school cafeteria. Whenever we would ask about the ingredients in the menu items, we could never get an answer. The ingredients were always changing.”
The one-time owner of a health food store, Chopra recruited a tech-savvy colleague to write the program that became AllerSchool.
District 11 is the only district to adopt AllerSchool to date, but Chopra hopes to expand it. The cost is modest: $10 to $20 per school per month. For that amount, Gipsee codes all the necessary data to show exactly which ingredients are in a given menu item.
Humphrey said an added benefit to the AllerSchool program is the extra transparency it’s given school lunchrooms as the district moves toward more scratch-based cooking.
“It’s helped us analyze our menus, break them down and see what the foods are that we should consider eliminating,” she said. “We can say we’re making all these great changes, but this allows parents to look and see for themselves. They can see, ‘This is homemade meatloaf, and it doesn’t have all these chemicals.’ I think this is really going to take off.”