For the past six years, Dipu Ghosh’s daughter made her own lunch because the gluten-free options in her school cafeteria were few and not easy to identify.
After a meeting this month with the director of MCPS’ food program, that situation is improving. The seventh-grader, two other students and their parents worked with MCPS to create a gluten-free section of food in the Pyle Middle School cafeteria.
It might not seem like a big deal to prepare a lunch to bring to school every day, but Ghosh said the availability of gluten-free cafeteria food actually means a lot to the kids who need it.
“They feel left out. Everyone else has trays and has options,” Ghosh said. “This is a big thing.”
On Monday, the school cafeteria started providing gluten-free rice and part of a service line will be dedicated to gluten-free food, an important shift for a lunch menu that offers gluten-filled staples such as pizza, chicken coated in wheat and whole wheat rolls.
Marla Caplon, director of the MCPS Division of food and nutrition services, said it’s the school system’s goal to accommodate the needs of all students, no matter their preference.
Gluten is a protein complex found in wheat, rye and barley. A gluten-free diet is the only medically accepted treatment for celiac disease. Fresh fruits and vegetables are gluten-free and have been offered in school cafeterias for years. But finding other options, while they existed, was never the easiest process, Ghosh said.
“Over the years there have been several questions about providing items that are gluten-free,” Caplon said. “Quite honestly, they’re not very good quality and they’re very expensive. We talked about the items we have that are gluten-free and we got a really good response.”
The change at Pyle won’t mean new products in the cafeteria, but instead better accessibility. Caplon said the cafeteria will advertise a gluten-free section of hamburgers, tacos, corn chips and, of course, fruits and vegetables. Fish and gluten-free chicken nuggets were also mentioned in the Sept. 18 meeting.
Ghosh said he reached out to parents on Pyle’s email list and heard from about 20 parents interested in the program. The next step is to promote it through the school and see how many students take to the gluten-free foods.
Caplon said she’s going to make the same change at Cabin John Middle School, where a parent had similar concerns.
“We want the students who follow a gluten-free diet to know where to go,” Caplon said. “We want them to get lunch so they can be well-nourished and feel eager to eat.”