For most Blazers, the lunch line is safe, inviting and full of options. However for me, that line is perilous and fraught with danger.
I am gluten intolerant and have been on a gluten-free diet for five years. Dealing with my intolerance at school, I have noticed that very little attention is paid to kids like me in the school lunch program. Currently, there are no gluten-free items on the school menu that fit the UDSA nutritional guidelines meaning that MCPS is failing to provide lunch options that foster the wellbeing of the entire population.
Accessibility to school lunch is a problem for students with serious allergies in Montgomery County. Most of the menu items are tailored to those without allergies and consequently, there aren't many allergen-free options. The procedure for obtaining accommodations for food allergies is a complicated process and students with allergies are not as big a part of the menu development process as they should be. The Montgomery County Division of Food and Nutrition Services needs to create more menu items safe for students with allergies and intolerances and make it easier to obtain accommodations. For students with food allergies or intolerances, this could mean that they would be able to eat a lunch purchased at school - which is normally a right taken for granted - without the worry that their meal may send them reeling into an allergic reaction.
There is plenty of information available on the MCPS website to help students with allergies understand what they can do, but it does not translate in substantial accommodations. Although MCPS does offer information on the foods containing certain allergens on their website, the available information only sends the clear and disheartening message that there is close to nothing on the menu that is allergen-free and safe to eat. Knowing which foods not to eat is not the same as having allergen-free options.
The website also explains the process that students and parents must go through to get special accommodations. But the procedure involves meeting with the cafeteria manager, who has limited availability, and bringing in doctor's note for something as simple as substituting juice or water for milk in a standard meal.
Maddalena Bianchini, Blair's cafeteria manager, explained that the cafeteria staff could prepare anything on the menu, even if the dish was not available to everyone else on that day. "We can always scrounge up something,” she said.
However, these not so comforting accommodations lack nutritional balance and do not address the root of the problem: there are still very few menu items free of common allergens. This leaves those with allergies with the same options as before - close to none.
According to the MCPS website, there are a variety of vegetarian meal options that are available on the menu which is great for those avoiding meat but the same courtesy is not shown to Blazers with allergies and intolerances.
A 2008 study, "Vegetarianism in America” by the Vegetarian Times revealed that 3.2 percent of Americans follow a vegetarian diet while an estimated 3.3 percent of Americans live with an allergy to gluten, peanuts, cow's milk or shrimp. This leads to the question of why Montgomery County is so insensitive to the issue of allergens when there are more people with these possibly life-threatening conditions than people who voluntarily choose not to include meat in their diets. It is absurd that the Montgomery County caters more to people with chosen diets than to those who must avoid certain ingredients due to genetics.
One way that MCPS can start to improve school lunches for those with allergies and intolerances to consider them in the meal planning process. This would include creating menu items that are designed without some of the top eight allergens, similar to the inclusion of vegetarian options that are denoted on the printed menus in the cafeteria. Also, offering more à la carte items like salads that aren't pre-made would benefit students with allergies and also others who prefer a lighter lunch option.
Although I can get around the problems by bringing my lunch, there are students with allergies who prefer not to bring lunch or are not able to for economic reasons. There is a substantial number of students in MCPS who rely on the Free and Reduced Meals (FARMS) program for lunch and if one of those students has an allergy, they must face limited food choices, since FARMS only covers a standard lunch.
Dietary restrictions are a substantial problem in America, and MCPS has the responsibility to provide school lunch options for everyone, even students with dietary restrictions and allergies.