8% of children in the UK are reported to have a food allergy and the number of people with food allergies and intolerances is rising by approximately 5% every year.

Schools are reporting an increase in the number of pupils with special dietary needs due to allergies, intolerances, and coeliac disease. The interesting factor here is that a significant proportion of these pupils have food sensitivities that are not in the commonly known ‘Top 14’ allergens.

With many of the foods and ingredients, commonly included in standard menu plans also needing to be reviewed, just how can schools and education settings create menu plans that pupils and students can consume safely? 

Allergen management: special diet planning in schools

It can become a highly complicated process with lots to consider. Communication with the child or guardians, dining experience, menu management and ingredient inventories all play a part, and the key to successful dietary safeguarding is in the preparation.

Caterers must have a close working relationship with their school client colleagues and have open engagement with parents and guardians, healthy communication with all parties is essential. Once the individuals diet plan is agreed, focus turns to the dining experience. Delegated personnel need to ensure that the hypersensitive child can enjoy mealtimes in the same way as a non-sensitive child, ensuring they do not feel singled out and can enjoy their experience in the same way as others.  Caterers endeavour to be as inclusive as possible by tailoring the regular menu with carefully selected ingredients that students suffering with an allergy or sensitivity can safely consume.

Of course, a vital part of the process is ensuring that a robust allergen management plan and pro-active special diet system is in place. Risk management responsibilities sit with different people throughout the dining process, responsibility can quickly shift from the kitchen staff to the lunch supervisors and even the child themselves.

Allergen Accreditation encourages every school to engage non-kitchen staff in formal training and encourage working together as a whole team. All staff connected to the lunch service should be able to support the special diet aspect of the operation; without this team effort, issues can arise and near misses, or worse, can occur.

It is good practice to brief all the team before each lunch on the day’s menu, allergen ingredients and reminders about any students with special dietary requirements. This is an opportunity for any team member to raise a query and for the management to ensure that the whole team are confident with their responsibilities.

Schools and their caterers should adopt a policy of safeguarding tailored to their operation, there are many changes that can be made to ensure the food service is as safe as possible, for example, homemade breads can be served from the counters as opposed to being freely available in bread baskets on tables. Before making any changes, there should be careful consideration made to the core food service offering as education settings still must meet efficiencies and specification standards.

Special diet safeguarding policies should be put in place and contain critical points and guidance. An example of what this could look like is: 

1Just before approaching the service area: Member of staff registers the pupil (Manually or by iPad/ device) and identifies person as hypersensitive to alert service personnel.Lanyard or other easily identifiable item for catering staff to see can be issued at this point. (Lanyard or other items NOT collected until pupil has finished with the service process, e.g., passing through the salad/sundries area). Personalised lanyards can be used to detail prohibited ingredients.
2Photo ID easily on display within the serving area (for catering staff to see) with the pupils’ hypersensitive needs clearly shown and what special diet/menu has been prepared for them.Serving personnel must familiarise themselves with this information.  In the event temporary staff are drafted in, they must be supervised to identify hypersensitive customers.
3Member of front of house team, (lunch time supervisor, assistant etc.), chaperones, hypersensitive child through the service process.Front of house team must familiarise themselves with menu information and be aware of the childs allergies and intolerances.
4Till system operated by catering personnel that clearly flags up hypersensitive child to service personnel.Information readily available to till personnel.

For more support with dietary safeguarding and to understand how our CaterCloud allergen and menu management platform can protect your business and your students please visit https://ef-group.co.uk/solutions/catercloud/ or contact our CaterCloud team via email at support@catercloud.com or call us on 0161 441 3443.