Managing Food Allergies in the Cafeteria
Tips for Food Service Staff
Eating in the school cafeteria is often stressful for young students with food allergies. Hidden ingredients, cross contact between foods, and the fear of allergens left on lunch tables are often cause for concern.
Feeding a child with food allergies can be just as stressful. When you consider the additional challenge of juggling many diet-related conditions among your student body, it's easy to see how your food service staff can become overwhelmed.
The food service staff plays an important role in your food allergy management team, and they should attend all meetings on the topic. The following are some guidelines for key staff members.
- Know what to avoid and substitute. Ask the parents of each student with a food allergy to provide a list of all food ingredients to be avoided. Do not rely on lists of "safe" prepackaged food, because ingredients can change often and without warning, making such lists out-of-date quickly.
- Read labels. Develop a system for checking ingredient labels carefully for every food item to be served to the student with the allergy. One student who was allergic to legumes (such as beans, soy, and peanuts) had an allergic reaction after eating cheese pizza she had purchased in the school cafeteria. The reaction was caused by dried navy beans, which the manufacturer had added to the crust to increase the protein to meet nutritional standards. Although beans were listed on the ingredient label, nobody expected them to be used in this type of food product.
- Prepare the kitchen. Designate an area in the kitchen where allergy-free meals can be prepared. This area should be a "safe zone" and kept free of ingredients allergic students should avoid.
- Identify the student. When working with younger children, consider how students with food allergies will be identified when moving through the cafeteria line so that someone can ensure the selected food is safe. Some schools require that these students identify themselves to food service staff; others specially code lunch tickets as a way of alerting staff to a food allergy. One school identified a student with an allergy by taping his picture to the cash register.
- Develop cleaning procedures. Clean and sanitize with soap and water or all-purpose cleaning agents and sanitizers that meet state and local food safety regulations, all surfaces that come into contact with food in kitchens, classrooms, and other locations where food is prepared or eaten. Cleaning with water alone will not remove food allergens.
Finally, it's the school's responsibility to serve the food; it is the parents' responsibility to teach you what their child can or cannot eat. Don't hesitate to ask questions. Success is achieved by working in partnership with the child's parents and the student who has food allergies.