Start Smart: Prepare Now for Special Diets and Allergies

Knowing school diet rules and tracking ingredients will provide students foods they need and enjoy. 
Know how to accommodate for school allergies

Back to school looks a little different every year. It’s exciting to introduce menu concepts and learn more about what your students enjoy. However, your role goes deeper than simply feeding students what they enjoy. You also need to accommodate what they need. With considerations for medical requirements, food allergies and intolerances, there is a great deal to balance when it comes to mealtime.  

It’s important to understand the difference between a disability and a special diet. A food allergy may be considered a disability. And with the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Amendment Act of 2008 and the broadened scope of disability, most impairments—physical or mental—may be deemed a disability (1). For example, a lactose intolerance may be an impairment to the digestive system and could be identified as a disability. 

Know how to accommodate 

In a memo released in September 2016 by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), School Food Authorities (SFAs) are required to accommodate needs based on disabilities. Beyond accommodating disabilities, SFAs have the option of serving meals to meet the needs of special dietary requests. Mental and physical impairments need to be evaluated case-by-case to determine whether they classify as a disability. When the meal accommodations for the disability no longer meets the required meal pattern then the request should be accompanied by a medical statement from a state-licensed healthcare professional in order to receive reimbursement for meals.. The medical statement is very important because it will also include what interventions are needed to accommodate the disability. 

The intervention will likely include working alongside parents or guardians to determine a solution feasible and effective for the student. If SFAs feel there is a lack of detail on the medical statement about how to accommodate the disability, it is imperative to seek clarification first then SFAs can consider assistance from the support of a registered dietitian, if available, or SFAs could contact their state agency for support with meal modifications.

Plan for menu success

One of the best places to start is with your menu. Make sure you are using a cycle menu. This will narrow the number of items on your menu. From there, you will need to look at each product and its ingredients to understand the allergens. It helps to organize the information into a chart—be sure to include sufficient detail, such as the name of the ingredient, item code and manufacturer, so you can easily identify when products are substituted. 

Don’t assume about ingredients

Although you can collect information from manufacturer websites or even use the information posted in Online Ordering, it is imperative to check the ingredients on the actual product before serving. You cannot afford to assume anything when it comes to ingredients, because manufacturers make changes without notice. You need to act as the eyes and ears of those with food allergies since they are unlikely to see the ingredient label before consuming products.  

Thanks to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) which went into effect in 2006, manufacturers identify the major food allergens on their ingredient statements through one of two formats. The top eight major food allergens that are required include: egg, peanut, milk, tree nuts, soy, fish, wheat and shellfish (crustacean).

1. Including the word “Contains” followed by the name of the major food allergen(s). For example, “Contains milk, wheat”. 


2. Including a parenthetical statement in the list of ingredients. For example: “Albumin (Egg)”. 

Other statements found on food labels, such as “may contain” or “processed in a plant where ____ is produced,” are not required by manufacturers. 
It is important to work with a student’s doctor or a medical professional to understand how ingredients with “may contain” statements fit the menu.

Substitute and communicate

The next step is to make substitutions. You can reference the table you created and add another column that identifies an appropriate substitution. 

We understand managing food allergies can be overwhelming. Customers can log into Gordon Experience and check out these resources to help with staff training:

  • Allergen Checklist—get started by organizing your products and allergens.
  • Training topics—Responding to Special Diet Requests, Part 1 and Part 2. 

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