Some schools are finally getting with the program, launching school lunch menus with gluten-free options. In some cases this helps dozens of kids stick to their medically-required diet and eat with their friends at the same time. It may not seem like a big deal, but it can be as the years go on.

I recently had a conversation with Esther Motyka, a nutritionist who started the gluten-free menu for the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota.  We talked about how the inaugural year with the gluten-free lunch menu went, the challenges and the things that can be improved upon. She said while at times it was tough, it was very worthwhile.

Starting the Gluten-Free Menu

Motyka started the menu in October of 2008, with a three week schedule. It was heavy on salads for a few months, but by about February and March, the menus evolved to include pasta, along with beef tacos, chicken tacos, hot dogs and hamburgers. By the end of the year, they had at least 10 people using the menu districtwide each day.

During the process of starting the menu, communication and education were crucial between the district’s nutrition office and lunchroom personnel at each school. “Once we figured [the diet] out, we became very diligent…workers seemed to pick up on the diet more.” Motyka said staffers were quite surprised by the number of items that contain gluten. Overall, Motyka said the staff was supportive about the additional menu “…they care about the kids…they’ll do what they have to do.”

The Anoka-Hennepin district is one of the largest in Minnesota.  One of the challenges for the nutrition department is that doesn’t have the facilities to bake like some districts do. For example, the Rochester school district in Minnesota has the ability to bake several different gluten-free desserts. It helps that district cut costs on their gluten-free menu. Motyka said she wished she had access to something similar.

Looking ahead to 2009-2010

As the summer moves on, the department is looking expand the menu a bit more. In the meantime, the department is working diligently on reassessing all of their foods and checking on their gluten-free status as the new school year quickly approaches.

Anoka-Hennepin is on the cutting edge of school lunches by offering this gluten-free menu – even though all the work that’s put into it may not make Motyka or her department feel like a trailblazer. This year, other districts will continue to forge ahead and break new ground by adding gluten-free menus as well. For districts considering adding a gluten-free menu, Motyka recommends working as much as you can with the foods you already have. Also try to follow the regular menu if at all possible. And she says, “Keep in mind your production capabilities” (like the aforementioned baking facilities).

Overall, Motyka says this diet is very doable in the public school system; you just have to be dedicated. “It’s a challenge, but there’s definitely a need out there and we just need to keep working on it.”

**Note: for parents seeking to inquire with their district about a gluten-free menu,  summer is a great time to do it.  Read a recent post called Approaching your School about Gluten-Free Foods.

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