School officials are often revamping cafeteria menus, whether to offer more healthy choices or to meet the needs of a growing diverse community.
One other factor affecting school menus is the increasing number of students with food allergies, which has led Loudoun County public schools to not only adjust menu options but also to make procedural changes in cafeterias and classrooms.
Nancy Markley, supervisor of student health services for the school system, said the number of students who have food allergies increased from 3.2 percent to 4.6 percent over the past four years. Over that period, enrollment grew by 11,621 students, a 22 percent increase.
“We’re a growing population as a school system and students, so we’re seeing more things because we have greater numbers,” Markley said.
To adapt, the school system provided more information about food ingredients to parents and students, implemented new checkout procedures in cafeteria lines, banned many treats from classrooms and put EpiPens in each school to use in case of allergic reactions.
And an old staple in school cafeterias — peanut butter — was among the items dropped from the menu. In its place, the school system now uses a sandwich spread made from sunflower seeds.
“They all seem to like it a lot,” food services supervisor Jinny Demastes said. “They’ve just really adapted to it. I haven’t had any complaints.”
Demastes said the school system also switched to Otis Spunkmeyer cookies because the company guarantees that there is no cross-contamination with nuts.
“We want [students] to feel comfortable that they can have a school lunch if they choose to do so,” Demastes said.
To help parents be more informed, the school system provides menus online and lists the ingredients of products sold in the cafeteria. Markley emphasized that it is the parents’ responsibility to inform the school system about any food allergies their children have.
“Staff members cannot read food labels [to] make a determination about whether a product is safe for a child,” she said. “The parent has to make that determination.”
When allergy information is provided by parents, the school system enters it into a software program used by cafeteria workers. When the students key in their identification numbers, a red box listing their food allergies appears on the cafeteria workers’ computer monitor. This helps the cafeteria staff stop children from buying foods that could trigger an allergic reaction, school officials said.
The school system also has instituted other guidelines, including no food sharing and using only “non-food treats” — such as pencils — to celebrate birthdays. Foods containing allergens are also not allowed in the classrooms of students with food allergies.
Because many students bring their lunch, foods with allergens — including peanut butter sandwiches — are not banned from school cafeterias. Instead, each school determines rules for table restrictions, such as requiring students with food allergies to sit at “allergy tables.”
“We try very hard not to segregate those students so that it’s not such a big deal . . . so that they don’t have kids picking on them or making fun of them or bullying them for any reason,” Demastes said. “Whether they’re coming through the tray line in the cafeteria or whether they’re bringing their lunch from home, we try very, very hard not to have it be noticeable that this child has something that might be a little different.”
Under a new policy this year, every school was equipped with at least two doses of epinephrine, which is used to treat people having a severe allergic reaction. Staff members have been trained to administer the drug using auto-injectables, the most common of which is sold under the name EpiPen.
“If parents have a child with an identified allergy, they are still responsible for providing the epinephrine and the doctor’s order for their student,” Markley said, adding that she has not seen any drop in the number of parents providing epinephrine for their children this year.
Thanita Glancey, whose 9-year-old daughter has multiple food allergies, gave the school system high marks for its efforts to meet students’ needs.
“I’m pleased with it because . . . I know it can be challenging with trying to manage all the allergies of such a large student body,” Glancey said, pointing out that food allergies go beyond the “top eight” allergens. “There are children in our area [who are allergic to] corn, and that’s in everything. You think of high fructose corn syrup. And it’s also in non-food products.”
Glancey, president of the Loudoun Allergy Network, a volunteer organization that provides support and information about allergies, appreciates the school system’s online list of ingredients.
“It’s very helpful because I can print it out, which I do at the beginning of the school year, and I can go through and, if I have to, also call the manufacturer to see if anything’s changed . . . and just highlight the ones that are safe,” she said.
Glancey said that she would like to see the schools do more to label foods in cafeteria lines, to give students more responsibility for selecting foods that are appropriate for them.
“You have everyone sort of working together, and . . . my child, as she’s growing older, being able to understand and take ownership of her allergies as well,” she said.
But Glancey’s daughter draws the line at sunflower spread.
She “has tried it, but now she won’t go near it because it smells too much like the real thing,” she said.