Managing Food Allergies in School Cafeterias
For many kids, the school cafeteria is a nightmare, but this is especially true for kids with food allergies. The inevitable cross-contamination, the unreliably washed plates and lunch trays, and the stressful social situations are just a few of the reasons why food allergies and cafeterias do not mix. Nevertheless, eating lunch at school is a right of passage, and there are always ways to cope, even in the worst situations.
My first year of high school was the first time in my life I had encountered having to eat at the school cafeteria. I went to a small independent school for elementary and middle school where everyone brought their own lunch and ate at separate desks in their classrooms. However, when I entered high school, I had to face the challenge of managing my eight food allergies and staying safe while trying to fit in at a new school with people I barely knew. After trying to put a lunch together with cafeteria food, I found it impossible to find food that was safe for my allergies, tasted good, and kept me full for the entire day. I tried the salad bar, but hardly any kid wants to eat a plate of lettuce for lunch while their friends gobble down thick slices of pizza. There was cereal, but that couldn’t fill me up through sports practice. After a few weeks of trying to manage, I realized that cafeterias – and frankly, most food places in America – are simply not food-allergy friendly. Now, as a junior, I usually always bring my own lunch to school.
While I was initially upset that I had to bring my own lunch again every day while my other friends could simply pick theirs up when the bell rang, I learned some important lessons. I learned that food allergy kids have to constantly adapt to situations, and even though I would never be able to enjoy the freedom of eating at the cafeteria, I had the confidence and strength that not everybody develops this early on in life. I learned that putting my safety above all else should always be my first priority, even when it’s hard. As a freshman, all I wanted was to fit in and be a kid who could eat whatever they wanted, but that’s not who I am. I’ll always be the girl who has to bring her own lunch to school, and I’ll always be proud to be that girl.
In the future, I want to see food allergy accommodation considered a priority in school cafeterias. While it may be impossible for schools to accommodate every allergy that exists, there should be greater awareness of eliminating at least a few allergens from cafeterias so more kids can feel safe and comfortable going into the lunchroom. For example, offering gluten-free pasta served in a separate section is a simple step that could be taken. Putting packets of sunbutter and jelly out so kids can make sandwiches with bread they bring from home is another easy step that can be taken. While I’m proud to be an allergy kid and know how to take care of myself, I shouldn’t be the only one doing so.