Over the last decade, food allergies have been on the rise in the West. England saw a 72% rise in the number of hospital admissions due to anaphylaxis (acute allergic reaction) among children between 2013 and 2019. Keeping children safe from allergens has become one of the key responsibilities of schools and school caterers. Under Section 100 of the Children and Families Act 2014, schools must support pupils with medical conditions. Likewise, the Food Information Regulations require all school caterers to show allergen ingredient information for the food they serve. So, what are the best strategies to manage food allergies and dietary restrictions in schools?
The importance of accommodating food allergies and dietary restrictions in schools
Inclusive meals are critical for equal nourishment and safe sustenance among children. It is part of fostering a positive food culture in schools, where every child gets to eat school meals without having to opt-out. Whether it is allergies, special dietary needs due to illness, or religious faith, both schools and meal providers must ensure a safe environment where all children can enjoy school food without compromise.
Different types of food allergies
Around 5-8% of UK children have a food allergy, with at least one allergic pupil in most classrooms. Some of the most common allergens include cow’s milk, hen’s eggs, gluten, nuts and peanuts, seeds, soy, and shellfish. Peanut allergy is one of the most prevalent, affecting around 2% (1 in 50) of children in the UK. In recent decades, it has seen an increase. Food allergies can be potentially life-threatening, with anaphylaxis being the most severe symptom. Allergic reactions can be immediate or delayed. Classic allergy reactions include;
Gut reactions: Abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhoea
Skin reactions: Itching and swelling (rash or nettle rash)
Respiratory reactions: Runny nose, sneezing, wheezing, cough
Common dietary restrictions
Dietary restrictions are limitations or modifications in one’s diet, often due to health, cultural, ethical, or personal reasons. These restrictions can be voluntary or necessary for managing a medical condition. Dietary restrictions related to health, like diabetes or IBS, may not result in immediate adverse reactions, like allergies. However, not adhering to them may still have short to long-term health implications.
Dietary restrictions in school food may include vegan or vegetarian diets, kosher and halal diets, lactose and gluten-free diets, and sugar-free diets. Schools and caterers must respect faith-based, lifestyle-based and health-based food choices.
Strategies for managing food allergies and dietary restrictions
These strategies are a two-way exercise. Both the caterer and the school must coordinate to achieve optimum efficiency.
Establishing a clear policy
Every school must ensure they work with a catering company that has an allergen and dietary restriction policy. It means they have the knowledge, skill, and adaptability to provide for special dietary needs. In-house nutritionist expertise is necessary when designing bespoke menus.
They must have separate food preparation areas for these meals to avoid cross-contamination. Your caterer should keep up with changes to ingredients and ingredient origins from suppliers. They should also read labels carefully before adding products to the food they prepare.
Engagement from parents, teachers, and school staff is necessary to identify the needs of students. Cooperation and communication are key factors in making school meals inclusive. There are legal requirements that meal providers should adhere to about allergens.
Allergen information is life-saving. All allergen ingredients should be accessible to children, parents, and staff and mentioned clearly in full. Caterers must provide an allergen-content menu chart for all dishes. Prepacked for direct sale (PPDS) food labelling must include ingredient information with allergens emphasised.
Education and training
Catering staff must be able to provide accurate and complete food information upon request by students or staff. Coloured wristbands along with details of their allergy will help them identify children with allergies.
Allergy training is an essential part of managing food allergies in schools. Both the catering and school staff must have this knowledge. They should also have training to respond to allergic reactions in the cafeteria.
20% of anaphylactic reactions happen at school, and these can occur in children with no prior history of food allergies. In-school policies should include epinephrine auto-injectors (EAI) and emergency anaphylaxis plans (EAP). It includes keeping a stock of EpiPens and training staff to administer them. Staff must be aware of allergy bullying and take a zero-tolerance approach to prevent it.
Caterers must have a thorough knowledge of faith-based and medical condition-based food restrictions. Doing their own research in addition to the information they receive from the school and parents helps them get creative with the food and devise varying options.
Creating allergy-friendly spaces
School caterers must follow strict guidelines and procedures in preparing, packing, and serving food to avoid cross-contamination. Staff should keep utensils, containers, and serving trays for these meals separate. Colour coding and labelling can help identify meals that are prepared for students with allergies and dietary requirements. Wiping clean tables before and after meals prevents food residue contamination.
Diverse menu options
Pupils with allergies and dietary restrictions must also be able to enjoy a variety of food. Working alongside nutritionists, caterers should create diverse menu options using safe ingredients. At the same time, they should consider the nutritional value of meals to provide a balanced diet. These meals must be exciting, flavorful, and colourful to ensure children with restricted diets do not feel left out and can enjoy their food just as much as their peers.
Clear communication is a crucial part of managing allergies in school meal programmes. Parents, school staff, and catering staff must cooperate and coordinate to create menus for children with dietary needs. They should have clear channels of communication to update and request information. Schools should facilitate this to ensure all parties stay accurately informed.
Allergen-free school food by Alliance in Partnership
We work with parents and our resident nutritionist to ensure children with special dietary needs get to eat safe, healthy, and delicious meals. Local sourcing from trusted and certified producers and cooking in our own kitchens give us higher traceability. Our staff is food allergy trained, and we adhere to allergy guidance for school catering.
We strive to exceed nutritional standards by using fresh, seasonal, and sustainable produce to prepare food every day. We use organic ingredients whenever possible. By constantly innovating and improving, we make healthy food fun and exciting for all schoolchildren. Do you have children with special dietary needs in your school? Learn about our tailored solutions for your school’s catering needs.