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Starting School Gluten-Free, Worry-Free

As of yesterday, I am officially the parent of a kindergartener. Like most parents sending a child to public school for the first time, I’ve been anxious (and even a little nervous) about how my daughter will transition to public school. Unlike the other parents of children in my daughter’s class, however, I have an additional dimension to our school preparations: keeping my daughter safe from gluten.

To be honest, the thought of sending my daughter to school was absolutely terrifying at first. She was used to spending her days in our home, where all foods, all craft materials, all lotions, all EVERYTHING is gluten-free. How could she possibly stay healthy in kindergarten, with gluten lurking everywhere?

Obviously, something affected my attitude over the past few weeks, as yesterday my daughter boarded the school bus with a big smile and a confident wave goodbye from Mom and Dad. What happened? A lot of research, many conversations with other parents, and friendly meetings with the wonderful people at my daughter’s school.

I’m happy to share what I learned with you. I’ve consolidated my research and experiences into five tips for a more worry-free start to school. Although they are developed for the child with gluten-intolerance or gluten-sensitivity, these tips could easily apply to other food sensitivities/allergies, so feel free to adapt them to your needs. 

Tip #1 – Have a plan for meals and snacks before school starts.

Don’t wait until the first week of school to think about your child’s meals away from home, especially if you expect that your child will purchase meals at school. Although an increasing number of schools are beginning to offer gluten free menus (like these), your school cafeteria may not be anticipating the needs of a gluten-intolerant child. Most school cafeterias will still provide a gluten free meal when given advance notice, however. By law, schools participating in the National School Lunch Program (most all do) must accommodate students adhering to a medically-prescribed diet. Check with your state’s office of education to find out what documentation you need from your physician (for example, Kentucky’s “Medical Statement for Children Requiring Special Meals” can be found here). For more information, this Access to School Lunch FAQ from the American Celiac Disease Alliance is a great start.

Even though you may qualify for gluten free school meals, you may choose to pack your own (we do). You’ll still want to take measures to prevent gluten cross-contamination, but don’t worry – most of these additional steps are just plain good hygiene. Ask your child’s teacher or cafeteria staff to wipe down your child’s table, so that crumbs or sticky residues don’t contact your child’s hands or food. Make sure that your child is given the opportunity to wash his/her hands with soap and water before eating (as hand sanitizer does not remove gluten that may have been picked up during classroom activities). Talk to your child about food sharing – we want children to share, but teach your child how to politely decline food offers from other children.

What about meals beyond the cafeteria walls? At my daughter’s school, like many others, parents provide morning snacks for the class on a rotating schedule. Well before school began, I asked my daughter’s teacher if I could request that class snacks be gluten free, and I provided a letter to parents from me explaining my daughter’s need. I also provided a list of mainstream items that I had identified as meeting our gluten free standards (my daughter is very sensitive to trace levels of gluten). Not only did our teacher copy this list and include it in opening day materials as the ONLY approved snacks for her classroom, but she also revised our letter, making it a request from HER to meet the medical needs of unidentified students in the classroom (Wow, right?). You are more than welcome to use my list of mainstream gluten free snacks and my letter to parents as a start.

Tip #2 – Always have a backup plan for meals and snacks.

Many of us have experienced moments when our best-laid plans have gone astray. If you pack a gluten free lunch for your child, what will your child eat if an accident happens? What about those unannounced birthday parties when everyone else will be eating cake? Ask your teacher or the school nurse if you can leave spare gluten free snacks in a container designated for your child. Inquire if you can store a frozen back-up gluten free meal in the faculty refrigerator or cafeteria freezer. Make gluten free cupcakes at the start of the academic year and freeze them… you’ll never be caught off guard by an impromptu party.

Tip #3 – Help your school understand your child’s needs.

Let’s face it… until you had to adopt a gluten free lifestyle, you probably didn’t understand the myriad places in which gluten can hide. Our schools are no different. Before school starts, send a letter to your school and district officials requesting a meeting so that you can make sure they understand your child’s condition and needs (you can view my sample letter here). Many teachers and administrators are surprised to learn that gluten can be found in some craft materials, supplies for science experiments or class projects, or in the school nurse’s medicine cabinet, and will be happy that you have provided them with the information they need to avoid an incident.

Before you meet with school officials, consider whether or not you would like to have a 504 Plan developed for your child. This plan is named for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which insures that students with disabilities receive an equivalent educational program and student services as those without disability. Although you may not consider a food allergy/intolerance a disability, they are indeed special conditions that warrant protection under Section 504. Many parents choose to make personal arrangements each year with a child’s teacher, but in doing so, they aren’t taking advantage of the special protections afforded to their child through a 504 plan. A 504 plan is a legally-binding document that ensures the school will accommodate your child’s gluten free needs in the cafeteria and the classroom. It further protects you from undue financial hardship as a result of your child’s food allergy/intolerance – the school must provide gluten free foods and acceptable classroom materials, rather than parents. The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness provides a great roadmap for parents and teachers wishing to develop a 504 plan for a gluten-intolerant child.

Tip #4 – Find support from other parents

It can sometimes feel like your child is the only one with a food allergy/sensitivity going to school. Find support from other parents who have travelled this road before you by checking with your area’s celiac disease support group. Make sure that you take advantage of the orientation program or open house that most schools offer before school begins; I was surprised to meet several other parents of children with food allergies, and it was comforting to share our stories and know that I wasn’t alone in my worries.

You don’t always have to talk about your child’s gluten free journey, but you can use your involvement in school to spread awareness about celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. Join the Parent-Teacher Organization and attend school functions when you can; the more parents get to know you and your child, the more they can help their own children develop empathy for food allergies and sensitivities.

Tip #5 – Talk to your child about bullying.

We all have fears that our child may be bullied in school, regardless of food allergies or sensitivities. Earlier this year, a study published in Pediatrics revealed that roughly a third of children with food allergies were the targets of harassment specifically due to their allergy. You can’t always be there to protect your child from a bully, but you can still prepare them to respond appropriately and get help.

First, talk to your child about how their dietary needs might make them a target for bullying. Make it clear to your child that neither retaliation nor silence is an acceptable response to bullying, and that it should be reported to school personnel immediately. Consider role-playing to help your child plan an appropriate response to a bully’s taunts or action. Most importantly, early discussion about bullying might help your child talk to you about it if it unfortunately occurs. The one bright lining to that Pediatrics study about food allergy bullying? When parents were aware of the bullying, their child’s anxiety was less pronounced and their quality of life scores were better than children of unaware parents.

Discuss your concerns about bullying with your child’s teachers and administration. Encourage your school to offer awareness programs about food allergy bullying as part of their broader anti-bullying educational programs. If your child is being bullied and school officials are not responding appropriately to your concerns, make sure they know that harassment about food allergies is against the law. For more information about food allergy bullying and how to prevent it, check out the great resources provided by FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education).

Do you have any additional tips to share on how you helped your child and your school transition to a gluten-free, worry-free classroom? If so, please share in the comments. Have a great school year!

About Cathy Rehmeyer PhD

I am Wife to Pa Hubbard and Mother to two beautiful girls under the age of five. I am also a medical school professor, which ultimately allowed me to identify my family’s gluten intolerance issues, but has also influenced my interests in the food-body connection in numerous other ways. Prior to earning a Ph.D. in plant pathology from the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, I taught high school biology and was a seasonal park naturalist for many years. My experiences in medicine, agriculture, natural history, and teaching have all converged into the gardening and gluten-free living blog, Mother of a Hubbard. I hope you enjoy it!

View all posts by Cathy Rehmeyer PhD →

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