GREAT Schools: Gluten-Free Program at Richland School District Two in Columbia, SC
By Cheryl McEvoy, NFCA Director of Communications & New Media
It all started with one kid.
That’s how Jeffrey Quasha, CEC, CCA, explains the gluten-free initiative that now provides more than 65 meals and snacks to students on a weekly basis. Quasha, Culinary Operations Manager/Executive Chef, and his team at Sodexo Richland School District Two in Columbia, SC, are among the early adopters of GREAT Schools, Colleges and Camps, a gluten-free training program for foodservice professionals working in cafeterias and dining halls. The program, run by the non-profit National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA), helped Quasha introduce gluten-free options safely and effectively.
Quasha admits that four years ago, he never gave gluten-free much thought. “As a chef, I wasn’t aware of gluten at all,” he said. “It’s not something we ever talked about.”
Then, his team received their first request for gluten-free options. He began researching gluten-free needs and discovered how much his team needed to learn. They turned to GREAT Schools, Colleges and Camps, which taught essentials like how to check ingredient labels for gluten and how to avoid cross-contact with gluten-containing foods.
Initially, Quasha and his team set up a dedicated gluten-free kitchen at the school where the child had requested gluten-free meals. As word spread about their training, more students and parents came forward with gluten-free requests. So, Quasha and his team devised protocols to ensure gluten-free meals were kept safe, even when prepared in a gluten-containing kitchen.
“When we get a new gluten-free request, we do [GREAT Schools] training with the managers and staff,” he said. “We assess the kitchen, then we buy bins and label them ‘gluten-free’ to keep in the kitchen.”
The team uses separate cutting boards and utensils for gluten-free food, wraps gluten-free food in foil to avoid contact with gluten in the oven and cleans the dish machine before washing any gluten-free plates or utensils to prevent any gluten residue from settling on the items.
Gluten-free safety is the No. 1 priority, but Quasha is taking extra strides to ensure gluten-free students feel comfortable and included, too. He plans gluten-free meals to match the standard menu items. If hot dogs are on the menu, gluten-free students get all-beef dogs served on gluten-free buns. For Pizza Fridays, there’s a gluten-free pie ready to enjoy. Salads are also available on a daily basis, so gluten-free kids always have two options to choose from.
“You can’t tell a kid is eating a gluten-free meal,” Quasha said. “His friends don’t pay attention to it. He’s just like everyone else.”
Currently, Quasha and his team serve 10 gluten-free students in seven districts. While that may seem small, the impact is clear. “The parents are excited,” Quasha said. “They’re excited there’s the opportunity; they’re excited their kids can eat something; and they’re excited to not have that financial burden.”
Cost, however, is a challenge for the schools. Gluten-free alternatives are often more expensive than their mainstream counterparts, especially among packaged foods like gluten-free chicken nuggets. Quasha works around that by opting for fresh and naturally gluten-free choices, like making grilled chicken tenders instead of breaded nuggets. He also asks purveyors which products are gluten-free so he can stock up on sauces, dressings and other ingredients that can meet gluten-free needs but also work for the standard meals. “It’s a matter of sitting down and looking at what you order,” Quasha said. “A lot of products we use on a daily basis are gluten-free.”
While preparing gluten-free meals does require additional steps and cautions, Quasha said the reward is well worth it. “We’ve actually expanded to middle school programs,” Quasha said. “And we’ll continue the program as the kids grow.”
To learn more about NFCA’s gluten-free training program, GREAT Schools, Colleges and Camps, visit www.CeliacCentral.org/Schools.