Open thread: Vegetarians, vegans, and people with food allergies

A little late with the open thread today. I’m busy doing summer things and getting out. It’s great not to feel like I have to tackle the laundry and the grocery shopping right away. Just a relaxing weekend…


I’m amazed when I dine with one of my many vegetarian friends (I don’t have any vegan friends) how challenging it can be for them to find something appropriate to eat. And another of my friends has Celiac’s Disease. She has such few options in most restaurants that she really can’t eat out at all.

The reason I’m “lumping” these people together is that finding appropriate food outside of the home is very hard for all of them. And then what happens at school? My friend with Celiac’s found out in college so she didn’t have to navigate the public school system with a special dietary need. But I wonder what people have to go through to eat in school cafeterias…

Most schools do offer a “meatless” alternative (cheese sandwiches, pb&j sandwiches, maybe bean burritos if you are lucky), but “meatless” is often not synonomous with “quality” (as I witnessed, and digested, firsthand). I’m not saying that schools should have to “cater” to kids with allergies every day. But I believe that what I have been eating at school is very wheat and meat heavy. Couldn’t that be scaled back a bit? I’m wondering how kids with special dietary needs survive in the cafeteria.

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66 thoughts on “Open thread: Vegetarians, vegans, and people with food allergies

  1. I have been reading your blog for a few months now. As a kitchen manager in an elementry school, it is interresting to read everyones comments to your postings. I guess I am fortunate to be in a district that is trying to do better. Until the recent media and your blog I thought most districts were moving more to fresher food. Our district will meet ANY MEDICALLY required dietary need. Parents only have to get the right paper work. That being said, cross contamination is a reality that is hard to avoid. Some of our schools are peanut free but you can't stop parents from sending contaminated items for their own children. At my school, we have a peanut table that is closely monitored; we even use special washcloths and cleaning solutions to avoid cross contamination. But this table is still in the same room as all the others. Our district has attempted to cater to celiacs students. We can and do purchase special foods for these students. Our kitchens are very clean and we are trained to understand the dangers of cross contamination but if one crumb of bread is going to make you sick, I wouldn't eat a gluten free meal prepared in our kitchen. With the amount of bread products used, I can not say your food wont be exsposed. These foods do cost the district more money because we can not charge more to the student . Our district tries to offer vegetarian options at least 3-4 times a week. These choices will usually contain cheese. In the high school we tried some vegan entrees (which I personally really liked when I worked there) but the students didn't buy enough to make it worth while. In a school of 2000 maybe 2 would take the option. Our district will do this if it is a medicl need but not a religious need. we go above and beyond in the seperation of church and state.

  2. I don't have children and don't have any (known) food allergies myself. I avoid high-fructose corn syrup, and I was appalled when I realized it was in pretty much every mainstream condiment (ketchup, jelly, etc.) served in restaurants, so presumably it's in the cafeteria food too. I'm also eating a lot less meat than I used to–may go full on vegetarian someday–and reading through this thread I have to say that it must be the most frustrating feeling as a parent to reconcile special dietary needs (whether by choice or by necessity) with a school lunch system that may not support it much or at all. When I think back on my grade school years, it was all pretty much mystery meat, canned veggies, white bread, and fried bits. Sounds like it's not much different today.

  3. I was a vegetarian for years, and then diagnosed with Celiac a few years ago (I'm not veg. anymore). I always took my lunch to school when I decided that I didn't want to eat meat anymore, but I was in Jr./ Sr. High school, so I could pack them myself.
    I am expecting a baby soon, and I am very interested to see what will happen should we have to avoid gluten during our child's school years. After reading this blog I'll probably be packing lunches anyway!!
    As for going out to eat…it's such a hassel. I feel so bad asking questions, having to call a restaurant before I go etc. I mostly stick to the same few places, mostly family run where they will throw on a new pot of water for me and allow me to bring my own pasta. Anyone looking for a fast food option I would suggest Chiptole.

  4. I am a vegetarian and have been for nearly 20 years. I am now raising 2 happy, healthy vegetarian children. My older son's school has a vegetarian meal three times a month. Not a daily option, but a vegetarian meal THREE TIMES A MONTH! And it is typically cheese pizza or quesadilla, not exactly a low-fat, high vegetable option.
    My younger son is in daycare. They were shocked when I told them we would not be taking the meals but would instead be sending meals for him. The director still acts perplexed at his packed lunches and asks a lot of questions. Luckily the classroom teachers are a little more tactful about lunch and try not to call too much attention to the fact that he's eating something different.
    I'm certainly jealous of any school that offers a vegetarian option daily. I only wish our school district would embrace healthy eating… it is my son reports that he has seen a fresh fruit/vegetable ONCE in a year. They had apples ONE TIME in a year. SIGH!

  5. I don't agree that schools should be "peanut free" because of the small proportion of children that are fatally allergic to peanuts. I do believe that teachers and schools should be accomodating in not serving the children peanuts (or whatever allergen the child is allergic to). Since Peanut butter is not inherently dangerous to the public(unlike cigarette smoking for example),it isn't the government's authority to ban it because a few are. Additionally, what happens when the children move on up out of the "peanut free" school and into the private sector?

    While I do agree a more healthy overhaul of lunch food is necessary (there are scientific studies that show certain items served in the lunchroom do lead to health problems in the general public), if at any time a parent is not satisfied with the "free" lunch, then serve your own. Even if you would otherwise qualitfy for free or reduced lunch, I am confident that there are avenues that offer more parental choice/control over what is served. Examples are food stamps, WIC, and food pantries. Many regions of the country also have CSAs that trade healthy fruits and vegetables for work on the farm.

  6. One positive thing I am hearing more and more about is that many schools are moving away from peanut butters to using SunButter . In most part, that move has been driven by the prevalence of peanut allergies. But SunButter also addresses the quality concern as well. Their site says:
    SunButter is naturally good for you. It contains 1/3 less saturated fat than peanut butter. It does have double the fiber and the same amount of protein. It is naturally higher in Vitamin E and contains no trans fats.
    The company is really good about working with educational institutions to make the transition to SunButter easy for the administration and the kitchen staff, too.

  7. I have followed your blog with interest this year. I am a teacher in a public school as well as a food allergy sufferer. I am allergic to: wheat, eggs, milk, peanuts, lemon, and citric acid (check your labels, it's in everything!). I am also prone to migraine if I eat anything with nitrates or avocados. There is very rarely anything I can eat in the school cafeteria. Most of the main dishes served at my school are reheated frozen foods. There are very few fresh items. My coworkers love to see what I have to eat since I am "allergic to everything." In 16 years I have only had one student with a food allergy (peanuts). I find that remarkable because I believe food allergies and sensitives are more prevalent than that limited occurrence would indicate.

  8. I am a high school student with celiac disease, do not normally eat school lunch, I have on a few occasions eaten my schools salad bar, which is quite good, but I can't have the dressing's. I don't mind that I can't eat their lunch though, because the lines are so long, and the food doesn't look that great. What I am worried about is college, it is only a few years away from me and, although I don't think of it too often, I am wondering what I will eat. I have learned that UC Davis I visited caters very well to a gluten free diet, but it is not a college I am interested in. I guess we'll see when the time comes.

  9. I'm floored that with 56 posts ahead of mine, no one has pointed out that, by federal law, schools MUST accommodate kids with dietary restrictions. Those that do are not just "being nice." They're complying with the law known as the Americans with Disability Act (the "ADA"). For purposes of this law (not for purposes of one's personal opinion), a disability is anything that hinders or limits a major life activity. Dietary restrictions limit eating, a major life activity.

    Schools that do not accommodate kids' special dietary needs are not complying with ADA. Most can be "encouraged" to comply simply by a parent pointing out to them that they are not ADA compliant and that the parent expects them to make the necessary changes to bring the school into compliance. If this doesn't illicit the desired response, you may have to sue the school under ADA. If you're in this unenviable position, check to see whether someone else has filed such a suit against the school and you may be able to join in. To find out, you would have to go to the clerk's office for the federal court that has jurisdiction over the area you live in. Lawsuits are a matter of public record so the court will open its records to you.

    If you can't afford to hire an attorney, try to find one who will take the case pro bono (i.e. at no charge). Contact your local chapter of the American Bar Association (in some cases, the chapter may be at the state level) for assistance in finding attorneys who do pro bono work. If one of your local TV stations or newspapers has a consumer reporter, see if you can get them to do a story on the problem. You can also contact your state and federal senators and congressmen to ask for their help in resolving the issue. Your governor and your state attorney general are other resources for getting the issue resolved without litigation.

    It's a pity (to put it mildly) that some schools don't accommodate kids' dietary restrictions simply because it's the right thing to do. Kids are our future and we send them, and their sponge-like minds, to spend the day learning, and learn they do, including things that are not part of the curriculum. A school that fails to accommodate dietary restrictions is sending kids a message that its convenience comes before a person's special needs. They're just kids, I guess. You know, our future doctors and nurses, policemen and firemen, lawyers and politicians, judges, bankers, teachers, scientists and…….people we'd like to count on to do the right thing.

  10. My husband and I plan on packing lunches. I don't think it will be much of a hassle, because we're used to packing our own lunches and planning ahead for meals anyway. We worry a lot more about classroom snacks and parents bringing cupcakes and treats for birthdays and holiday parties. We don't want our children to feel left out!

  11. I have been a vegetarian since I was 12, and I am now 28. I rarely ate school lunch–more because my mom didn't think it was healthy and because I wouldn't eat many of the food items served anyway. I generally brought lunch that I packed and was pretty happy about it.
    I do remember that one elementary school had a salad bar, and I would get that on occasion. But it was a pretty rare occurrence.

    In high school I ate a lunch that I brought every day. It was usually PBJ and fruit, sometimes carrots and celery, and a soda. I've kicked the soda habit now!

    Going out to eat is a challenge for me. I am engaged to a meat-eater, and we usually end up going to restaurants that have pasta or pizza. I will eat fish if that is the only option on the menu, but I hate to do it–usually the fish is fried and I can taste the grease for hours after. I find the worse thing is having to ask for a salad without bacon or chicken on it and the server looks at me like I'm nuts.

    As it is now, my kids will have a choice about school lunch and whether they want to eat meat. I will more than likely encourage the kids to bring lunches from home.

  12. I am allergic to fish oil which is a rather uncommon allergy. I have a friend allergic to pork, beef, eggs, and milk, and another friend with celiacs. I still managed to cook dinner for all of us and a vegetarian, not to mention 14 other non allergenic people out of a dorm room. If I can do that a cafeteria should definitely be able to accommodate food allergies.

  13. Navigating a college dining hall with food allergies has been really challenging for me. I am gluten free and was on a strict elimination diet for the last quarter and a half of my school year. What made it particularly challenging was the fact that I could not find anything out about the ingredients of my food. The university was very tight lipped about what was in the food. I assume this is because it comes from one of the largest commercial food companies for schools…They were unwilling to accommodate my diet and wouldn't let me get a refund for my meal plan since I found out about all of my allergies/sensitivities/the elimination diet in the middle of the year. I was so hungry all of the time and we had no kitchen in my dorm. I traveled home many weekends to prepare enough food to last me for two weeks so that all I had to do was reheat it in the microwave. I also got a rice cooker which really was a lifesaver!

  14. The elementary school my little sister attends has a child with a SEVERE nut allergy. So the school stepped up and made EVERYTHING peanut free. The boy packs his lunch but even the smell of peanut butter makes him break out. They set aside a table just for him and any friends that wish to have a peanut free lunch option so that he can sit with kids; many of them do, they pack and sit and eat. His parents made an extensive list of foods he can and cannot eat and sent it home to every parent in the school district through the school, and they took all measures necessary to help him.

    Also, my high school serves fruit salad in the al la carte line daily, along with healthy fruits and veggies in their regular line that come with the lunch. often they serve 'make your own pizza' that can have just cheese on it, vegetarian lasagna, spaghetti, or options that you can choose not to have meat on such as chicken over a biscut (get just biscuts and gravy, no chicken), cheese mexican pizza, spaghetti, chicken or taco salads, etc. i feel my school does okay in helping kids with allergies or vegetarianisim. I have a tomato intolerance as well and since hearing of it they no longer serve two tomato options in the regular lines (i am on free lunch and must go through regular lines or have cash. some examples include spaghetti and sloppy joe in the two lines, or ham bbq and pizza, etc. i know its expensive to do it that way but they did, for me and i feel that was really nice.)

  15. I've been a vegetarian since HS. In HS I brought my own lunch. My mom would always make it for me, unless I decided that I absolutely had to eat school food. Then the lunch lady would be nice and would make me a cheese sandwich. Our cafeteria had very limited vegetarian options. Some days there might be pasta with marinara sauce and I could always get a cheese sandwich. Not particularly healthy.

    I have since gone vegan and became a teacher. I do not go anywhere near the cafeteria. I can eat in my classroom and I always pack my own lunch. On the random day I might forget my lunch, I go out to this great sub shop that makes an awesome vegan sub with avocado on it instead of mayo. The cafeteria at my school does not provide any vegetarian options. All the salads are chef salads with bits of meat and cheese. They offer pizza and burgers everyday. And the main option is listed on the menu as a variety of chicken with a side.

    I have a lot of students who receive free and reduced lunch and I always feel bad for them. One in particular would complain of having a stomachache almost every day after lunch because of the garbage he was eating. But he had to eat the school lunch because it was free and he didn't know what he would be getting for dinner at home that night. It always made me feel lucky that I never had to consist on school food.

  16. I went to elementary school (15 years ago!) with a kid who was allergic to yeast. I remember he always packed his own lunch and whenever we would have classroom parties, he was basically limited to the teacher's stash of animal crackers.

    As for my high school… They accommodated vegetarians barely and vegans entirely not. I don't remember a hot meal that didn't involve meat or dairy in some form. They had a "sub bar" (like Subway, but not as nice), where you COULD have them make you a sandwich without any meat… there were only pre-made salads, no salad bar, and those salad ALWAYS had meat or eggs on top– meaning, you had to pick them out. So basically, your choices were limited to bagels and cream cheese or lukewarm soft pretzels. Or french fries.

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