Tools & Resources

Managing Food Allergies in the Cafeteria

Tips for Food Service Managers and Staff

Eating in the school cafeteria is often stressful and can potentially be dangerous for students with food allergies. Hidden ingredients, cross-contact between foods, and the fear of allergens left on lunch tables are often cause for concern.

The food service staff, as part of the food allergy management team, is vital to ensuring the safety and inclusion of students with food allergies. The following are tips for food service staff members to reduce the risk of exposure to food allergens and help prevent allergic reactions in the cafeteria.

Identify the student. With parental cooperation, create standard procedures for identifying children with food allergies that do not compromise students’ privacy or confidentiality rights. For example, a recent picture of each child could be kept in a location that is not visible to other children or the public. Procedures must follow the requirements in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

Know what to avoid and substitute. Make reasonable meal accommodations after receiving approval from a doctor or allergist through dietary orders or as stated in the child’s emergency care plan. Share menu ideas with parents of students with food allergies to identify potential allergens and improve healthy eating. Make sure to give parents adequate time to review menus before serving them to students with food allergies.

Read labels. Read all food labels and re-check with each purchase for potential food allergens. Be prepared to share food labels, recipes or ingredient lists used to prepare meals and snacks with others. Keep food labels from all foods served to children with food allergies for at least 24 hours after serving the food in case the child has a reaction.

Prepare the kitchen. Designate an allergen-safe food preparation area. Follow policies and procedures to prevent allergic reactions and cross-contact of potential food allergens during food preparation and service. In addition, keep current information for vendors and supplies so you can get food ingredient information. Ensure that vendors alert school staff before a product substitution is made so that the new product can be vetted for potential allergens.

Develop cleaning procedures. Encourage children, school staff and volunteers to wash hands before and after handling or consuming food. Wash all tables and chairs with soap and water or all-purpose cleaning agents before each meal period. Please note that antibacterial gels do not remove food allergens from surfaces.

Create a safe and inclusive cafeteria environment. Consider designated allergy-friendly seating during meals (open to any child eating foods free of identified allergens). There should be additional efforts to ensure a child is not sitting alone in this seating area. Reinforce the school’s rules against bullying and discrimination and take action to address all reports of bullying of a student with a food allergy.

Prepare for and respond to emergencies. Be familiar with each student’s emergency care plan and the doctor’s statement required by USDA. Have rapid access to epinephrine auto-injectors in cases of food allergy emergency and train staff to use them. Consider posting FARE’s common symptoms of anaphylaxis poster in the cafeteria where it is visible to food service staff.

Promote parent involvement. Provide advanced copies of menus for parents to use in planning. Find ways for parents of students with food allergies to share their knowledge and experience with other parents.

*Please note: This list is non-exhaustive. It is critical for food service staff to receive comprehensive, ongoing training on the severity of food allergies and the precautions that must be taken to ensure a child’s safety.

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