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D204 goes gluten-free

Still Middle School cook Carol Mirecki (left) Food Service Manager TinMehtprepare gluten-free meals for District 204 students with dietary restrictions

Still Middle School cook Carol Mirecki (left) and Food Service Manager Tina Mehta prepare gluten-free meals for District 204 students with dietary restrictions at the Aurora school Thursday, Sept. 30. | Jonathan Miano~Staff Photographer

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Updated: April 19, 2011 4:50AM



It was a simple statement from her youngest son that spurred Wanda Malone into action.

Jayden, who is now in kindergarten, had returned home from preschool, disappointed he could not partake in snack time with his classmates.

“Mom, I wanted to have some Goldfish,” he told her.

But like his older brother DJ, his severe food allergies and auto-immune deficiency prevented him from having the popular snack crackers — and many other common treats.

“That just gave me the incentive to say ‘Why couldn’t we offer the same foods that are applicable to our children?’” the Aurora mother said. “Why couldn’t we?”

Soon, the ball started rolling in a process that would eventually bring gluten-free, casein-free meals to Indian Prairie District 204 students whose medical conditions require them to eliminate dietary intake of the naturally-occurring proteins gluten (found in wheat, barley, rye, and commercially available oats) and casein (found in milk and cheese).

“We have some very proactive parents to do this,” said Karla Zozulia, director of support services in District 204. “The district is really excited to be offering this to students.”

Malone decided to approach the district to see if it was possible to offer a gluten-free, casein-free lunch. Working with a group of volunteers including Carolyn Lewis, MaryBeth Stewart and Michelle Paluch, they created a plan and met with Indian Prairie officials as well as the district’s food service provider, Chartwells.

To gauge interest and to have data to present to the district and Chartwells, Malone, who is first vice president of the Indian Prairie Special Needs PTA and as well as fundraiser chair for Gwendolyn Brooks Elementary, surveyed members of Indian Prairie’s Special Needs PTA in February.

Of the PTA members, 20 elementary, three middle school and two high school parents said they would use the service if available to their children.

“We didn’t send out to the entire district,” Malone said. “I think the numbers would have been greater.”

In April, the district and Chartwells agreed to move forward with a pilot program, and the taste-testing began.

“This to me has been great that our district has been so open and able to provide this for our families,” Malone said.

Once GFCF chicken nuggets and cheese pizza were selected, the program piloted in May at Brooks and Cowlishaw elementary schools — a decision based on the preliminary survey results. The meals are prepared at Still Middle School.

“Actually our manager at Still worked at a hospital setting before so she’s used to dealing with people with (food) allergies,” said Susan Plemons, director of food services for Chartwells.

The meals all come in their own container, and are labeled with each student’s name so they don’t come in contact with other food.

By law a school district is required to provide an appropriate meal for a student whose medical condition or disability restricts their diet. But finding districts that have a specific GFCF program is a rarity.

“It’s definitely not routine by any stretch of the imagination,” said Andrea Levario, executive director of the American Celiac Disease Alliance, which is based in Virginia. Celiac disease is an intolerance to gluten.

Levario said it was a four-year process for her son to get a gluten-free meal in his school district. But once word got out, more people came forward.

“The reality is once it is known those meals are available, those parents and kids come out of the woodwork,” Levario said.

That’s what happened in District 204. Parents who didn’t take the survey have expressed an interest in the meals, Malone said. And the district has heard from parents at schools not currently part of the pilot.

“Word got out,” Malone said.

This school year, the pilot expanded to include Young and Steck elementary schools, along with Still. Currently nine families at three of the five schools are participating.

“We’re going to take steps,” Malone said. “We can’t just roll it out to the 34 schools in the district.”

Indian Prairie is believed to be one of few districts in Illinois to offer a GFCF menu, if not the only one.

“As far as I know, it would be the only one in the state,” said Carol M. Shilson, executive director of the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center. “This is the first I’ve heard of a full district taking it on in the state of Illinois.”

Because the special diet is a medical food need, there is no additional cost to families.

“We pay the exact same lunch rate as the typical menu,” Malone said.

Elementary students in the district pay $2.25 per lunch, which middle and high schoolers pay $2.30. Any additional cost for the GFCF meals, Plemons said, is absorbed into the cost of the program.

“Any extra burden on the cost is on Chartwells,” Zozulia said. “That doesn’t impact our cost.”

In order to participate in the program, physician certification must be submitted to the district. Once families turn in the necessary medical forms, they are given menus detailing what days the meals are available so they can place an order. The lunch order must be placed five days in advance.

“It’s specific for that child and made for that child that day,” Malone said.

The GFCF meals are offered twice a week. So far students have been able to order cheese pizza and chicken nuggets. Meals come with two GFCF sides, which include fresh fruit and vegetables and choice of juice or water. The meal is made specifically for each student, stored in its own container and labeled with the student’s name. All GFCF meals are prepared separate from the regular lunch menu items to prevent cross-contamination with non-GFCF food, which can trigger adverse reactions in those on the restricted diet.

Early Thursday morning — chicken nugget day — food service manager Tina Mehta and elementary production cook Carol Mirecki were busy filling individual cups with gluten-free gravy and mixing organic mashed potatoes — a new addition to the menu.

“These probably will taste really good,” Mehta said. “They smell really good.”

As they worked, the gluten-free chicken nuggets were baking in the oven on the top shelf.

“We always put it on the top shelf so nothing trickles down,” Mehta said.

Before it was placed in the oven, the baking sheet was lined with parchment paper as an extra precaution to prevent any possible cross contamination.

“She has to use pan liners so the product never touches the pan,” Plemons said. “Just in case there would be anything there.”

This month Chartwells will be adding a couple of GFCF new menu items, Plemons said.

“We don’t want them to always have the same thing,” she said.

As Chartwells finds more gluten-free foods that are available for commercial use, it looks to see if the items can be used for the student lunches.

“We’re looking at different avenues to find foods that qualify so we can expand the variety,” Plemons said.

Barbecue chicken and gluten-free, casein-free cheese nachos will be served in October.

“We’ve had some requests for tacos and nachos, and we found some recipes to fix gluten-free taco seasoning,” Plemons said. “We just have to make sure the chips are all corn … It’s a lot of label reading.”

It’s also a lot of follow-up. If an ingredient list includes “food starch,” Chartwells checks with the manufacturer to find out exactly what kind of starch. Certain starches, such as wheat starch, mean the students can’t eat the product if they have a gluten allergy.

While the availability of the meals at school has made planning lunch a little easier for parents, it’s the ability to share the same type of meal with friends that is the most valuable, Malone said. The GFCF pizza and chicken nuggets are served on the same day regular pizza and nuggets are served.

“That’s huge for them,” Zozulia said.

The meals help “to have our kids fit in and feel like they’re eating the same thing as their peers,” Malone said. “Our kids are able to sit next to their peers and have that same lunch. However, it’s gluten-free, casein-free.”

The program will be evaluated on an ongoing basis with the intent to add additional schools, those involved with the program said.

“My goal would be for us to offer it to all the students,” Malone said. “My intent is to make it available throughout the district. I don’t want it to die … It’s not just for our kids, but for all the kids that are coming behind us.”

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