With rising rates of food allergies among children, school cafeterias are struggling to keep kids safe without singling them out. This issue has led to a number of strategies for ensuring that students with food allergies receive allergen-free meals at school.

Connie Whitaker, cafeteria manager at Athens-Chilesburg Elementary, treats every student like her own child and strives to make sure every child is cared for while at school, regardless of his or her needs. For example, second-grader Jack Deitz has allergies to nuts, eggs, and wheat—but he won’t miss out on school birthday parties. His mom brings in allergen-free cupcakes, which Whitaker ices to match the rest so that his classmates can’t see the difference between Jack’s cupcake and their own.

She explains, “I don’t want any kid singled out – whether they’ve got allergies or whatever. They know we’re looking out for them.”

Jack’s mother, Amber Deitz, commented, “It might seem like a little thing, but for Ms. Whitaker to take the time to make my child feel like everyone else means the world to me and my husband.”

Cafeteria System Provides Allergy Alerts

The school’s cafeteria payment system also has safeguards in place to make sure kids with allergies don’t get the wrong meal. Each student has a PIN used to pay for the lunch.

“If there’s an alert, it comes up a bright red box that says this child has an allergy to peaches or strawberries or whatever it is – every single time through the line,” explains Marty Flynn, Child Nutrition coordinator for the school district. The cashier staff then checks the student’s meal to make sure it’s safe, which requires the staff to know all of the ingredients in every dish.

Peanut-Free Seating

The cafeteria is also laid out to provide peanut-free seating without singling out kids with peanut allergies. Each class has four tables in the cafeteria – two that allow peanuts, and two that do not. “That way, the kids get to sit with their friends. They learn quickly which table they can sit at, especially if they bring lunch from home. They look out for each other,” Flynn explained.

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