School Lunch Program Question

Updated on September 28, 2012
D.B. asks from Eastlake, CO
20 answers

Does anyone know if there are 'exceptions' in the federal school lunch program for children who have medical conditions? For instance, if a child has celiac disease and can't eat the bread that makes up the 'grain' part of the menu, does an alternative need to be provided? If a child has diabetes, does the school need to provide an alternative to the cake they might serve for a dessert? (I remember this being done for a friend of mine growing up. But I never knew who provided the alternative.)

If there were such exceptions, would they have to be applied equally to all students participating regardless of if they paid full price, reduced, or free, as the entire program is subsidized by federal dollars?

I know most schools you can still pack a lunch for your child, and I'm not looking to get into a debate of what the parent responsibility is/should be at this point. That's a whole separate pandora's box! What I'm trying to find out is, at the end of the day, how much is the lunch program responsible for accomodating.

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So What Happened?

Thank you all for the input. Everly and ReverendRuby, double thanks to you for the source information I was looking for.

I know and I agree with all of you that there is no way a school can be expected to comply with every single issue a child might have. I get that - that's why i pack lunches for my kids everyday. It costs me a small fortune to feed them with the quality of food I think they need.

However, my kids are some of the lucky ones who have a parent who also has resources to do this. The person I was asking this on behalf of, however, is not quite so fortunate. Not that I think it would do much good anyway. The school has started inspecting from-home lunches and if they don't fall within the new federal guidelines, the extra food is taken away or the parent forced to buy more food the child won't even eat. I will refer her to get a 504 plan asap. It never even occured to me that a 504 would cover something like that.

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answers from New York on

I f I had a child that needed a special diet, I would not rely on the school to
provide it. I would make lunch every day, this way no questions. Schools
cannot worry about what little Johnny can or cannot have multiplied x 10

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Columbus on

That's an interesting question -- my kids refuse to buy. We don't have a kitchen, the food gets brought in and microwaved and it's horrible. But my daughter has several food allergies, so I count myself lucky I don't have rely on them to provide it -- for celiac, even trace amounts of gluten through cross contamination can be extremely problematic, and I don't trust the school to be that careful. I know they provide vegetarian options every day -- I think they have to -- but I don't know whether they accommodate allergies beyond peanuts.

1 mom found this helpful

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answers from Albuquerque on

The USDA Child Nutrition Division in charge of school lunches requires public school food service to provide substitute meals for students who cannot eat regular school meals because of their disabilities.

Children with life-threatening food allergies are considered by law to be disabled, and are thus protected under federal law. If a school does not comply and provide substitute meals for a disabled child, the school can lose federal funding.

To qualify, a child must have a 504 plan in place and the child’s doctor must send in written instructions certifying the child's condition, what foods are to be avoided and safe substitutions.

For kids with allergies like those to strawberries or kiwi, what happens is they don't serve the fruit salad and instead give double carrots. Kids with beef allergies don't eat the hamburger, they get a nut butter sandwich instead. Those with dairy allergies choose the nut butter sandwich instead of the mac and cheese... or the cheese pizza. For kids with celiac, schools might make a gluten free sandwich for the child... but it's the same sandwich every day, not gluten free pizza when the rest of the school is having pizza and gluten free pasta when the rest of the school is having pasta.

For a diabetic... no. School lunches are formulated to fall within a certain sugar range and that is technically acceptable for diabetics. So no switches made for that. Maybe the child wouldn't eat the cake... but are there really public schools serving cake? My kids' doesn't.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Seattle on

I think that that would be A LOT of work. Can you imagine? Everyone who is allergic to corn, beef, soy, milk, apples, grains, get the picture, would expect a special menu for them. AND, I think it would be all the folks who are "intolerant" who would jump on that bandwagon.
I think that the school should serve the food they normally would and if a child can not eat bread they should be offered another veggie or fruit.

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answers from Oklahoma City on

No. They are not short order cooks and are not able to cater to a specific child's needs. If a child has needs like this it would be up to the parent to provide that child's food needs.

It's the same with allergies in my opinion. If a child has an allergy it is up to their parent to manage their food intake, not the school. It would eventually come down to each parent saying stuff like "My child can't have Juice, the doc says so....when in fact they just don't want them to have the juice and it's not a medical need. Or a parent who would say "My child only eats peanut butter", if you don't give him peanut butter at lunch I will file a discrimination suit against you.

All it takes is one parent abusing the system for it to go completely wrong. So it falls to the parent to manage their own child's dietary needs.

It may cost you more to pack a lunch but in all fairness, it's your job.

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answers from St. Louis on

I don't think it is required but if they have the need for alternatives they will provide them. In the grade school there is at least one child per grade with Celiac so there is a gluten free choice. I would think if it was one kid they would put the burden on the parents.

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answers from Minneapolis on

Great question. For medical reasons, my daughter requires a diet that is high calorie, high fat, and high in salt. The complete opposite of what our society is preaching these days to kids. So I am sure this will be a battle for us once she is in school full-time.

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answers from Appleton on

You need to get a letter from your child's doctor, on his/her letterhead, and give it to the person in charge of the school lunch program. This letter must detail what the child can or cannot eat.

Yes they have to provide a meal or meals, if breakfast is included, that your child can eat. My granddaughter is autistic and my daughter did this for her.

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answers from Dover on

I don't know the answer to your question but it is a very interesting one. While I can't imagine that they would be able to "cater" to every child's needs, I would think that one could argue that by not making accommodations for a medical necessity, they could be in violation of Federal ADA laws. Couple that with the new federal lunch programs and you have a nightmare on your hands.

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answers from Minneapolis on

I think they have to make sure kids have some kind of balanced choices on their plates. My DD is a vegetarian, so I personally went in today to tell the lunch ladies to please do not force meatballs on her plate. They are usually pretty good about letting her load up on side dishes and skip the meat, but every once in awhile you come across someone who thinks she is just being picky and tries to force things on her plate against her beliefs.



answers from Savannah on

Joe's school gives a monthly menu ahead of time with what the breakfast is, and 3 choices of lunch (hot meal, sandwich, or salad of the day), BUT they also go through and if I needed to, I could go on the site and click "Build My Lunch" and request a lunch a certain way to go with dietary needs or whatever. I've never used that option though, but it's there; I pack his lunch nearly everyday with what I want him to eat, and he can pick 1 hot meal every week or two if he'd like to try it.



answers from Seattle on

Our school has a vegetarian option, but I don't know if they have any other special diet options.



answers from Washington DC on

Many schools use a "child must choose one veg, one fruit, one protein, one starch" kind of formula, and if the child gets to the checkout in the line and for instance, has not chosen any fruits or veg, the child must go back and get them. In that kind of setup I would think the school simply would inform cafeteria staff that Child A may skip the starch requirement and take two proteins - or whatever combination the parent and the school OK. I do not think that any school would have the resources to, for instance, provide a daily substitute for every type of menu item, or even some types; with milk, most all schools provide a soy milk if they know the child needs it, but no school likely would have an alternative dessert on cake day because a child is diabetic, or a gluten-free pizza because the main dish that was regular pizza. In other words, with budget constraints being what they are in most schools, no school could afford a daily substitute that met a few children's needs; the child who could not eat regular pizza could not expect a gluten-free pizza as a right, but could be told, "You can get gluten-free pretzels instead," for instance. Alternatives would not be the same foods, in other words.

Most schools want to accommodate all children's medical needs as far as they can. But they also cannot afford to provide, daily and as a matter of course, alternatives to every type of dish on the menu, or even a few types. If your child has specific food issues, I'd work directly with the cafeteria manager. And of course the key thing is to ensure that your child is well schooled in knowing what he or she can and cannot eat, not just at school but in restaurants, friends' homes, etc.

The important term for any form of accommodation is "reasonable" accommodation that does not create a disparate impact on the rest of the group. A parent who had to use the school lunch program for a child with special dietary needs certainly should expect the school to have some responsibilty for accommodating the child but should not expect an equivalent dish-for-dish substitute for everything.



answers from Phoenix on

I have to agree w/a PP. I wouldn't rely on anyone other than myself, if my child had special food needs. The chance of a mistake is simply not worth it.



answers from Duluth on

Just something to my son's small school, I have little doubt that the lunch ladies would know him and be able to pick him out and accommodate him, were that his need. In a big school, there would be more likely to be more kids with similar issues, ergo more likely to gain accomodation. I don't know if switching schools is a possibility or something she would even consider, but if this is a really big problem, those are two things to consider.



answers from Kansas City on

The answer is probably yes...schools have to bend over backwards for everybody, so a child with diabetes shouldn't be any different.


answers from Milwaukee on

yes most schoolsdo work with you I know they do work with me at my daughters school and she attends a Catholic school and yes she does still get the free/reduced lunch



answers from Seattle on

I know at my children's school district we as parents must provide the necessary dietary needs. The school does not provide soy milk for those who need it nor do they supply anything that is gluten free. In a perfect world I would love for the school district to be able to accommodate everyone but I know that in the end they simply cannot do it. The school district as a whole does take precautions if needed and they do their best to help out the kids with dietary restrictions. There was a time when my son had to be casein free but soy milk was also a no-no so I had to provide his milk alternative.

I have no idea if the federal government could ever provide the type of program that covers all food needs and restrictions in a public school environment.


answers from San Francisco on

Our school sends out a menu for the month ahead of time. On every day, there is a menu of choices on which there is a vegetarian option, a meat option, and a "harvest bar" of choices to round out the menu. My kids tell me that the harvest bar includes items such as yogurt, fruit, salad, etc. For a beverage, they would have a choice of milk, chocolate milk, juice or water. It seems like a child with special needs could make a decent meal from the choices provided.

Having said that, I went on the field trip to the school district's commissary, where they make all the school lunches. Reading the menu, you'd imagine the choices to be pretty healthy. However, actually witnessing the food items being made, I changed my mind. (Vats of liquid "cheese," no whole-grain anything, even the fruit is in little fruit cups, instead of actual apples, peaches, etc) So, having seen all that, I seriously doubt a diabetic child would want to eat school lunch. I think a gluten-free kid could make a go of it, perhaps? Dairy-free or vegetarian would be easy.



answers from Pittsburgh on

I don't know what is required by law. But I know our school routinely provides soy milk as an alternative for kids who have issues with dairy. This is an option for any child, on any lunch plan - with a note from a doctor. I'm not sure about more complex conditions like celiac disease.

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