Must Schools Provide Casein- and Gluten-free Foods If Parents Request It?

October 1st, 2015

By Donna Rosinski

A few weeks ago, a mom left a message on my answering machine asking me this question: “Must schools provide gluten- and casein-free foods if parents request them?” She had attended a TACA conference on medical treatments, and had decided to try the gluten- and casein-free (GFCF) diet with her child. She felt that her child was responding well and wanted to make sure that the school was following through. Her child participated in an early childhood program where lunch was provided for all students.

When she requested GFCF foods for her child, the school told her that it was not their responsibility to provide such foods and that if she wanted them to follow a special diet, she would have to pack her child’s lunch every day.

What I found out, after doing some research, is that what this mom was told was wrong. School districts must provide substitute foods at no extra charge to the family if a child is considered handicapped under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. There are certain conditions that must be met, though. First, the nutrition goals must be written into the IEP, which then allows special education funds to cover the costs. Also, the request must be supported by a statement signed by a licensed physician.

This statement must identify the child’s disability and explain why the disability restricts the child’s diet. It also has to specify the major life activity affected by the handicap (it helps to relate the diet to the educational goals in the IEP). Finally, the statement must specify the food or foods to be omitted from the child’s diet, and the other foods that must be substituted. (Note that while schools are required to substitute allergy-friendly foods, they are not currently required to provide organic food.)
For parents working with a MAPS physician, obtaining the physician statement should be relatively straightforward. For those who will rely on a primary care physician to sign the statement, here are some tips to encourage the doctor to cooperate:

  • Point out that you are not asking the physician to sign a statement saying that the gluten-free, casein-free, soy-free (GFCFSF) diet cures autism; you are just asking for verification that your child has food sensitivities.
  • Point to any physical changes that have come from following the diet, such as the elimination of chronic diarrhea.
  • Avoid using the word “allergies,” because traditional allergy testing does not show this type of food sensitivity.
  • Document behavioral changes by charting the child’s behaviors both before and after starting the diet. If you can tell your doctor that your child had six tantrums per day before starting the diet and he now only has two, it will be pretty persuasive.

The next challenge is convincing the school district that they are required to provide alternate foods. When the parent mentioned at the beginning of this article talked to the educators at her child’s program, they laughed at her and dismissed the notion that they were responsible for providing casein- and gluten-free food choices. But after they called the Department of Public Instruction and checked, they stopped laughing.

If your school staff is unconvinced, refer them to this guide, published by the USDA, which outlines the school staff’s responsibilities: Accommodating Children with Special Dietary Needs in the School Nutrition Programs. The law applies to children of all ages.

Additionally, when you are writing your child’s IEP, consider requesting goals that teach your child to make appropriate food choices.

Although the parent mentioned above persuaded her child’s early childhood program to provide casein- and gluten-free food, they then asked her to do the purchasing (instructing her not to go to Whole Foods Market!) and asked her to submit the bills for reimbursement. Parents are not required to comply with such requests; parents of children without disabilities are not required to purchase food on behalf of the school district.


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