How would you like school kitchen intel from an allergy mom? I thought so.
I assist in the preparation of breakfast and lunch for about 100 4th - 8th graders at a small private school on Boston’s north shore every day. It’s a scratch kitchen and I work with a Johnson & Wales chef and a kitchen manager and pastry chef. We make everything from scratch, including barbecue sauce, vinaigrettes, granola, veggie burgers and so forth.
I will start with the many virtues of our kitchen. First, it is very clean and organized. Our chef has a fantastic relationship with the Board of Health inspector who visits us several times a year. The food is a huge selling point for the school; it is known as the best school lunch in the area, hands down. We pride ourselves on healthy delicious homemade meals that fall within the government dietary guidelines.
Also, we take food allergies very seriously. We are nut free and peanut free. We offer a pbj sandwich but use sunbutter. There are many food allergies among the student body. We know who has them and what they can eat. They ask a lot of questions, clearly well trained by their parents! We will accommodate any special requests such as a cheese free taco or gluten free pasta. There are also other food and diet issues that many of our students struggle with such as celiac, diabetes, seizures, anorexia, depression, you name it. Overall, we do the best we can to protect every student.
That said, cross contamination is very real. I will start with the obvious - the salad bar. Over 100 kids and teachers cram their way along the double sided 14 unit salad bar. Which means tongs are being double dipped, chickpeas are flying into the carrots, cheese cubes are in the honeydew. Then, there is the reuse of the cutting knives and cutting boards in the kitchen. If we are making a dedicated meal for someone with allergies, we will use a separate knife and board. But for the general public, they get reused. Nuts are avoided but I still prepare egg, dairy, tuna, sesame, chickpeas, edamame and wheat at my station pretty much every day with sometimes just a wipe down of the knife and board. I use common sense but there is no requirement to sanitize our instruments between foods. So I wouldn't assume that any prep person out there is doing that, especially if I'm not.
I couldn't forget the sunbutter spreader and the hummus scoop. We have one of those superduper industrial washing machines that revs up to 150 degrees of water shooting out from every direction. It’s hard for an item to come out not clean and sanitized. But for some reason, that spreader and that scoop need to be rewashed every single time. They are seriously sticky.
With vigilance and good communication, a reliable food allergy management plan can be followed. Students with allergies should either talk to us about the safety of our hot lunch, or bring their own lunches. They should not eat from the salad bar or try something without identifying that they have an allergy. Same as in the real world, school cafeterias are a great place for allergic students to learn how to communicate about their allergies. So talk to your school nurses and food directors and let’s work together to keep everyone safe and healthy. If you find the staff is not adequately responsive, get a cute insulated lunch box and load it up with safe food. But give it a shot - the kids are very excited when they get to each what their friends are eating!