Food Allergy & the School Lunch

The US Department of Agriculture oversees the national school lunch program and has a guidance document here.  On page 25 of this document, it states “The school has the responsibility to provide a safe, non-allergic meal to the child if it is determined that the condition is disabling.” Setting forth this statement is one thing – the application of it depends upon educated cafeteria staff, accurate ingredient listings of foods and in some cases good luck!

There are many ways to deal with the school lunch. We have opted for Morgan to ALWAYS bring his own lunch. We are very mindful of eating nutritious food, and the school lunches in our school district are based on a different idea of nutrition! Additionally, with Morgan’s multiple food allergies it has always seemed too risky to attempt finding a safe school lunch.

However, we are probably among the minority of even food allergic parents in our school district. Many times I receive questions from food allergic parents wondering how to create a safe menu for their child to eat school cafeteria food.

My first question to them is what is the motivation? Is it important to YOU that your child participate by eating a school “hot lunch” or is it important to your child? If it’s important to your child find out why. They may feel more a part of the crowd, and that is certainly important. If your child really isn’t thrilled with the idea, then maybe it’s best to send in a lunch made from home.

If it’s really important to your child, your next step would be to contact the lunchroom staff. Your school district will likely have a supervisor over the cafeteria staff who could obtain ingredient information. You could review safe foods and watch for those as they are available on a monthly menu. If your school doesn’t provide such a menu, then you may need to rethink if it’s safe to send your child in to school to figure out whether a food is safe. Remember, looking at a food to determine its safety generally doesn’t work. And taste testing to see if a reaction ensues is horribly dangerous!

Cafeteria staff will need to be trained to not cross contaminate foods. Picking up different foods with spatulas can cross contaminate the entire kitchen. If peanut butter & jelly sandwiches are made in the kitchen, and your child is allergic to peanuts, you may need to opt out of school lunches on pb&j days.

You will also need to find out how the cafeteria will let you know if a product’s ingredients have changed. The menu may have been safe in September, but by February the safe bread roll may come with sesame seeds, for example. Our school district provides a parent meeting in the beginning of the school year for all families dealing with food allergies. Parents can read all ingredient labels of all foods served. The glitch is that there is no system yet available to tell the parents if the ingredients have changed during the school year. And there have been problems with that for the severely allergic children.

Lastly, the cafeteria staff will need to be trained how to properly clean up. If your child can eat a few menu items, you will be relying upon them to clean up after unsafe foods are made in the kitchen area.

It takes a lot of work, and I’ve known too many food allergic children to have reactions eating cafeteria food. Yet some families have managed to find certain safe foods for their child to eat at school, and all is going well. It’s up to each family to find what works for you. After meeting Sara Shannon whose daughter, Sabrina, died at school after eating cross contaminated cafeteria food, Morgan and I decided his food allergies were too severe to take the risk.

Your state or school district may have guidelines for schools regarding special dietary needs especially for those students with food allergies. Check out the resources available and be cautious!

AllerSchool and Allergen Free Eating at School

AllerSchool is a complete end-to-end solution designed for the management of food allergies in K-12 school systems. It helps food service departments and school dieticians to manage complex issues involved with serving everyday meals to students with varying combinations of food allergies and dietary restrictions. is an interview with one of the two creators of AllerSchool, Mr. Dilip Chopra.

Mr. Chopra, can you tell us how you came up with the idea of AllerSchool? Who or what was your inspiration?

The inspiration behind this project was my daughter, who has had food allergies since she was only a few months old.  When she started school, we quickly realized the absolute need to be able to look into the ingredients of the food items served at the school cafeteria. The process of securing reliable ingredient information was so frustrating. We, as a family, started thinking that there had to be a better way! It is not that the school authorities did not want to cooperate with us, but the process of getting accurate information was just not very organized in general. As the years passed by, we came across other parents in similar situations but with children that had different combinations of food allergies, as well as different levels of allergic severities.

It became clear that there had to be a system that could quickly identify problem ingredients and generate safe food choices without requiring parents to go through the cafeteria’s hundreds of ingredient labels. We also realized the challenge that school food officials were facing by trying to accommodate all of the different combinations of food allergies into their daily menus.

As a result, AllerSchool designed to help students and their parents identify safe meal options, taking into consideration each student’s unique combination, and to help the school districts efficiently manage the complex issue of serving their students safe meals. AllerSchool was made a reality with the help of my friend Atul Ahuja, the other co-founder of AllerSchool and the technology architect behind this effort.

Please tell us about AllerSchool and how it works ‘in action’?

AllerSchool is a comprehensive solution with a lot of ‘bells & whistles’, all aimed at making it easier for students with food allergies, their parents, and the school food services departments to efficiently identify safe food choices from existing meal options at the school cafeteria.

Basically, a parent/guardian registers their student and their food allergy restrictions and based on that unique combination of food allergies, the system securely logs the parents on to a ‘parent portal,’ where they can view safe options for their child from the school’s existing menu. The parents are able to view detailed ingredients and can place direct electronic meal orders with the school cafeterias days, weeks, or months in advance.

AllerSchool aids school’s food services departments by automating the complex process of identifying safe meal choices for their students with allergies. It eliminates the process of manually identifying ingredients, including their many food derivatives. These tasks can only be efficiently carried out with the help of automated systems such as AllerSchool.

What do you hope it will accomplish for school districts?

For school districts, AllerSchool has the potential to increase meal revenues by increasing the number of students purchasing meals at the cafeteria. It also can reduce the risks associated with serving the wrong foods, improve parental involvement, and increase operational efficiencies that come with automation. By simplifying some of the complex issues related to food allergies, we hope schools are able to offer more inclusive meal opportunities for a larger number of students with food allergies.

How many school districts are currently using AllerSchool? What do they think about it? Has there been any upgrades or improvements made based upon user suggestions?

The AllerSchool system made its debut in Colorado Springs District11 last fall. Since most school districts implement new systems at the beginning of the school year, we hope to have more implementations this fall. We are currently talking to several school districts across the country which have expressed an interest in the system.

Both parents and the food services departments have expressed great satisfaction with the system. Improvements based on user requests are an on-going process at AllerSchool. We are continually upgrading, improving, and adding new features to the system.

How do you ensure that if ingredients in a product change that parents and students will know this?

The system is  a web-based, “real-time” system. Ingredient changes need to be communicated from the school food suppliers to the school food services and, if there is a change in ingredients, the district officials must make the change in AllerSchool, which is then instantaneously is reflected in all information that is available to parents. The system is in no way designed to replace manual responsibility and diligence at different levels of the food distribution process. Diligence, therefore, is an essential element of the process.

Does your system address cross contact in the cooking process? If so, how?

The AllerSchool system is designed to identify, detect, and interpret potentially unsafe items for individuals considering their unique set of food restrictions. It is not designed to address the issues related to cross-contamination. That falls within the realm of exercising care and diligence that must be carried out during the cooking and preparing processes.

With the AllerSchool system, is peanut butter still being served in cafeterias with your system?

The AllerSchool system has a unique feature that assigns an “Allergy-Friendly Index” (AFI) ranking to all recipes that are served at a given school district. In a nutshell, this is an index ranking that is computed based on the overall macro-allergy profile of a school district. So if peanut products are on the planned menu for a district with a large number of students with peanut allergies, the school food services will see a very low AFI ranking and a “flag” for menu items with peanuts, peanut by-products, and peanut derivatives. It is then up to the school district to decide if they still want to offer peanut products. AllerSchool provides the tools to make such decisions.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

We (along with D11) were selected as the semi finalists in the Operator Innovations Awards by the National Restaurant Association yesterday. Here is the news link for their announcement.

It is an honor considering we started as just a small grassroots effort and we were selected under the ‘Food Safety’ category for food allergies management nationally. The award also increases the awareness of the subject in the food services industry in general which can only help the efforts of our entire community including FAAN.


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