An unexpected Hashimoto’s diagnosis in January led to the eventual realization that my body could no longer tolerate gluten or dairy. For months, I learned how to transition away from my favorite foods (No pasta? I’m Italian! No smothering everything in cheese? Woe is me!). There is a ton of science behind why wheat created today is destroying Americans’ gut health – a factor to leads to nearly EVERY autoimmune disease in the books. There was a huge learning curve, not only in figuring out what foods I could eat but in realizing that even my closest friends and family didn’t – read couldn’t – understand.
Most people made comments like, “Oh, you’re one of those health nuts now?” or “Good grief, not you too! Gluten isn’t the enemy, you know!” They would laugh, and everyone else would laugh, and I would feel crummy. You get to a point where you stop explaining your allergy to people to avoid these interactions. You either say, “No thanks, I’m not hungry,” or you just eat the food and feel super sick later.
This last option is one I quit choosing long ago – however, it is VERY real in the mind of a middle schooler who doesn’t want to stick out like a sore thumb.
Fast-forward to this year – I have several students who are at least partially (or completely) intolerant of gluten or dairy. When I found out they were going through this, I made a point of mentioning my own intolerance to them privately. Every single time, their faces relaxed and they listened. I knew they must have been thinking, “Oh good, it isn’t just me.”
However, one adult making them feel “normal” wasn’t enough. I also oversee their lunch period every other day. On one occasion, I walked into the cafeteria to see a gluten-intolerant student eating breaded chicken nuggets. I walked over to her, looked at her plate, and then looked back up at her. She shrugged and said, “They didn’t have anything else to eat. I am really hungry. I’ll just deal with it later.”
My heart broke. I KNEW that feeling – the one where you DON’T want to be the oddball who has to ask for something different in front your friends. The feeling of shame that for whatever reason, you lost the genetic lottery and your body can’t handle the same food as your peers. The feeling of not belonging.
If you are an educator of middle school students, then you will fully understand how important belonging is to this age group. They are already odd ducks trying to navigate their way through their peer groups, find their identity and avoid ANY situation that makes them a target for ridicule. Can you imagine also having to deal with this?
That very same day, I drafted a professional email to the head of our school district – our Superintendent – inquiring into how we, as a school, are addressing the needs of these students.
For a few weeks, my email went unanswered. Eventually, I was invited to a meeting where the woman who oversaw the cafeteria was present, as well as the Superintendent. We met, discussed what was currently in place, what population we needed to serve, and possible solutions.
Less than an hour later, the meeting adjoined with the decision to provide gluten-free and dairy-free options for these students. The most important part, however, was that these options would be directly on the line with the other food, clearly labeled “Gluten-Free” or “Dairy-Free”, so that students would NOT need to ask for it, but simply grab what they needed and continue on. No more “oddball” status for them! To say I left that meeting feeling elated is an understatement.
These children are not going to speak up for themselves – they already feel like they stand out from everyone else. It is our job as adults to be their activists. A simple email and a short meeting were all that it took for my district to put this in to play.
What is your district currently doing to serve your student population with allergies?