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When It’s More Than Just Dinner: A Delicious Gluten-Free Meal Comes with a Big Helping of Inclusivity

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When guests with restrictive diets enter a SAGE dining hall, they know they can get a safe, nutrient-dense meal. But often, these students (and their parents) tell us they also get something they’re not used to in dining – a feeling of belonging and inclusivity. It’s part of SAGE’s mission – to foster community – but dining inclusivity is also becoming a mainstay of a diverse and inclusive education. Brandon Jacobs, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at The Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, encourages all independent schools to widen their definition of inclusivity to ensure those who follow different eating patterns are accommodated and recognized:


“Food is used to support community in so many ways in schools. It brings us together as a way celebrate cultural traditions, to commemorate achievements and milestones, and to honor traditions. To ensure those with food allergies or other dietary restrictions are part of these important social activities, diversity officers and school leaders must expand our traditional definition of diversity to include these individuals.”


Here's one of the many inclusion stories we received this year:  


Brianne Rett, a high schooler at 400-student Marianapolis Preparatory School in Thompson, Connecticut, can’t remember the last time she ate out without worrying about ingredients or cross-contact. Nine years ago, she was diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that requires her to avoid gluten in order to prevent damage to her small intestine. Navigating celiac has had its share of challenges, but also some pretty great bright spots, like one she experienced in the dining hall last January.  


Celiac means reading labels scrupulously and asking lots of questions. “When someone has cooked or baked something, I can’t just help myself. I have to ask about them about every ingredient they used and if their pan and utensils were cross-contacted. These questions are awkward and sometimes people can’t even answer them.” It also means changing plans, or not going out. When her friends go to Subway or Asian restaurants, Brianne usually has to pass. “When we try to make plans or want to stop for food, I always have to be the one to say ‘I can’t’ to common places. I usually have to pick a place where I know I can eat, which is often a sit-down restaurant that my friends don’t like or want to pay for.”  


But mostly, celiac means a lot of explaining. “People think it’s a fad, or that I have an allergy, or that celiac disease is contagious.” “Also,” Brianne says, “I get a long list of ‘can you eat, pasta, bread, no cake?!’” And then there are the donuts. All the time in elementary and middle school, and sometimes even now in high school, teachers bring in fun food or snacks for the class. When I was younger, my mom would always make sure to make or bring in a special snack for me and eventually I got used to it. In high school, teachers bring in donuts all the time, and I just sit and watch others eat them.” 


The otherness of eating differently and having to educateall the time ꟷ never goes away. The SAGE team decided to surprise Brianne one evening by turning the tables on her and her friends with a gluten-free theme night, complete with signage explaining gluten and why a gluten-free diet is essential for people like her with celiac disease.  


Brianne says SAGE Team Members told her earlier in the day to make sure she came for dinner. “I walked into the dining hall for dinner as usual and was warmly surrounded by the SAGE Dining staff telling me and showing me what the theme for dinner was. I was so surprised and happy that I could eat everything that night!” She says it felt good knowing that everyone was eating gluten-free and thought the food tasted good. “Most people see that something is gluten-free and stay away because they think it will taste different or bad.”  


To read more about our inclusive approach to dining, check out our white paper: The Need for Inclusive Food Allergy Management in Schools.  

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