We met with three registered dietitians who work at large Texas school districts to get the inside scoop on how they handle food allergen management in their school nutrition programs:

  • Austin Independent School District (Austin, TX)-  129 sites and 82,000 students
    • Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RD, LDN, CPT, SNS
  • Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District (Houston, TX)– 91 sites and 150,000 students
    • Katie Barckholtz, MPH, RD, LD
  • Spring Independent School District (Houston, TX) – 38 sites and 35,000 students
    • Jennifer Fasano MS, RDN, LD

Read below to learn the obstacles and challenges faced when managing their student’s food allergens, advice and best practices to other school districts, and more.

  1. How long have you worked in the school nutrition industry?

  • Ryan (Austin ISD)“This is my 4th year.”
  • Katie (Cy-Fair ISD)“A little over 5 years.”
  • Jennifer (Spring ISD)“About 7 years now.”
  1. What obstacles or challenges are faced when managing student’s food allergens?

Ryan (Austin ISD)We have quite a few allergies, so just the quantity is a lot, particularly in some of our schools, a large portion of our student body will have at least one. We have a lot of students with multiple allergies, so that can get challenging to feed them. Particularly students in our lower socioeconomic schools, with high free and reduced percentage, where we want to make sure we offer food to feed them, sometimes it can be difficult if they have multiple allergies.”

Katie (Cy-Fair ISD) –“Because of the nature of how we produce our food, almost everything comes into the production center…because we’re so large, we have very specific and restrictive buying guidelines, and so we have to purchase at this amount, we have to purchase from these vendors…that being said, we are kind of limited…But that’s not to say we can’t continue to look for more items, which is what we’re doing right now, to bolster our allergen free menu, to put more things on the menu rotation, so we are able to do that. And because it is a small population, hopefully we’re able to purchase enough to make that minimum purchase to be able to put them on our menu.”

Jennifer (Spring ISD)“I would say one of the biggest challenges for us is the quantity that we receive, the quantity of requests. Spring ISD has over 400 food allergies, and these are only the requests that are life threatening…110 of those are food allergy requests that require a special menu… it’s very, very common to have combination allergies…those create a challenge in trying to make a menu for each child that accommodates their needs.”

  1. Have you noticed a rise in prevalence, such as more diet modification forms being filled out over the recent years?

Ryan (Austin ISD)“Yes I have. This is my third year at AISD and I worked another year in Chicago, but I’ve certainly, over the last couple of years, noticed our systems are getting better in place for that, so I think there’s more forms being filled out and forms being brought in.”

Katie (Cy-Fair ISD)“This is my second year in this position, I’d say I received about the same amount of forms last year as I did this year. Perhaps this year has been a little bit more because we notified parents that if you have a student who does not have a life threatening allergy, but you want us to make sure to restrict items in the café and accommodate them, please send in a form. So I’ve seen more of those.”

Jennifer (Spring ISD)“This year, I noticed a drastic increase of forms being turned in, and I think that’s mostly because we went fully CEP this year with 31 of our schools… I think more paid students are participating than had participated in the past, because it’s free, why not? And I think because of that I’m getting more diet requests for students that didn’t used to participate.”

  1. Any advice or best practices to other school districts, things that you’ve found to be successful?

Ryan (Austin ISD): “We have the managers put the allergens in for each student, and any special instructions…I would recommend to always double check, any time I get Risk for Dietary Accommodations forms, I’ll quickly go back and double check, and make sure they were all put in and put in correctly which is important.

Training, training, training, is really important too, we make sure at the beginning of the year we’re training, with new managers we do a lot of training, and then throughout the school year constant reminders, if anything comes up and there is a reaction of some sort, we will certainly do some re-education and re-training, not just with that one staff, but with everybody, just to make sure everyone’s on the same page. And just being really adamant about everyone following the policy and procedure of the allergens, and that’s the parents, the nurses, the managers, so everybody’s on the same page with it.”

Katie (Cy-Fair ISD): “Making sure that you have a well-written policy, and that it follows what the ARM [Administrator Reference Manual] dictates and specifies… one that’s made public…and making sure you have documentation for whatever types of accommodations you’re making.”

Jennifer (Spring ISD): “Talking with parents, having those conversations. Being organized, I keep a spreadsheet of all my diets, so if a parent calls, or a staff member calls, I’m able to quickly find that student’s information. I also keep any conversations with parents written down so that I have that back-up information…Keep everything documented, because if a problem arises we have back-up records.”

  1. How does your software help with allergen management?

Ryan (Austin ISD)“The identifiers and the pop-ups on the [POS] screen when the kid comes through the line to let them know that the kid has an allergy has been very good. Just to be able to put everything in [Menu Planning] and all of it to be in one place. Ingredients, the allergens from the ingredients moving into the recipes, moving into the menus, and being able to identify it all has been helpful.

The [SchoolCafé] app certainly has been helpful – we’ve gotten a lot of really positive feedback from parents and teachers and students themselves from it for a variety of reasons. One it’s easy to see the menus… but for parents who have kids with a lot of allergies or even just one, it’s easy for them to identify what it is their kid can’t eat when they go into the line every day.”

Katie (Cy-Fair ISD)“I have spoken to parents who have used [SchoolCafé Menus] to see what foods may or may not have these certain allergens. I’ve given [SchoolCafé Menus] as a tool to parents not only for allergies but for calories, carbohydrates, just the menu in general. The ones I’ve spoken to have seen it positively, and now that we have all of our [eligibility] applications online, that’s pushed a lot of parents to go look at it again, or look at it for the first time.

[SchoolCafé] has been very helpful, I use it for my daughter to pay her lunch account, but then being able to see not only the menus but the pictures on the menus, to see all the nutritionals, to see what allergens are in there, because there might be parents who don’t fill out a [diet modification] form, but want to make sure their students don’t pick up whatever it is they don’t want them to pick up. So I think that’s helpful for students and parents whose child who maybe doesn’t have an allergy, and just want to practice a certain nutrition preference.”

Jennifer (Spring ISD)– PrimeroEdge Menu Planning Allergen Reports that we can pull are so helpful, I pull those up to help me plan my menus for kids that need an [allergen-free] menu… It’s really hard to do this just looking at every item and every label and figure it out. But I can run a report for the whole menu to tell me what items contain milk. That report is so helpful as a tool for planning those menus.

We use [SchoolCafé] that allows parents to put money on their child’s account, but it also allows them to see the menus at their school, and on each item you can click on it, and it shows really cool icons for wheat containing, fish containing, dairy containing, so those can be really helpful… It’s helpful as a tool for me to point out to parents and nurses that this is available.”

About the Author:

I have a passion for nutrition and received my Bachelor's of Science in this exciting field from the University of Texas at Austin.