Mealtime just got better for food allergic students at Harpeth Hall School in Nashville. In March, the private, college-preparatory school for girls earned a FARECheck Gold Certification from Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), the nation's leading food allergy nonprofit.
It's the first K-12 school, and just the sixth organization in the country, to achieve this status.
SAGE Dining Services, Harpeth Hall's foodservice contractor, spearheaded the certification process. "Students with food allergies deserve a great dining experience just like other students," says SAGE Dining Services Vice President of Food and Nutrition Lesley Vogel, RDN, LDN. "For them, a great dining experience means a safe dining experience, and they're counting on us for that."
SAGE has long maintained an allergen management program at Harpeth Hall (as well as the other schools it serves). Dining staffers receive comprehensive food allergy training, ingredient lists and food labels are easily accessible, and the kitchen is nut-free. Parents and students can also filter school menus for the 12 most common allergens, making it easy to find suitable options.
These existing standards made it relatively easy for SAGE to complete the FARECheck Certification process, Vogel says. Things began with an initial policy evaluation and comprehensive on-site audit. FARE reviewed how SAGE wrote their menus, how their menu-planning software worked, and how dishes are tagged on digital platforms for easy allergen filtering. They also looked at SAGE's procedures for training staffers and how food and ingredients are handled "from the time we unload it from the truck all the way through to how we store it, how we prepare it, and finally how we serve it," Vogel explains. The goal was to make sure these procedures prevented safe foods from being cross-contaminated by allergenic ones.
The process "validated all of the things we had in place and gave us advice for what we could do better," says Vogel. One of the biggest changes was rearranging ingredients on the salad and deli bars to further reduce the risk of cross-contact. Instead of storing allergenic ingredients (like croutons, cheese, or creamy dressings) near nonallergenic ingredients (like lettuce or tomato), the allergenic ingredients were moved to the end of the bars. "That minimized the risk that something like a piece of shredded cheese could end up in the lettuce," Vogel says. Croutons were also placed in a lidded jar instead of in a well, where they could spill when someone tried to scoop them out.
FARE also asked SAGE to create plan-o-grams for hanging in the storage room to provide staffers with an immediate visual reminder for where different ingredients should be placed. "Even though our policy had us storing things without allergens on the top shelf, this was an enhancement of that policy," says Vogel.
SAGE needed to implement a new system for flagging substitute ingredients too. "Anytime we get a substitution, we're always double-checking the ingredients," Vogel explains. "FARE wanted us to do a flagging system, so any subbed ingredients would get a red flag and be double checked by a manager."
SAGE staffers were asked to complete FARE's food allergy training too. Though staffers already completed SAGE's internal food allergy training, Vogel saw the additional training as a valuable way of reinforcing important information from a different voice.
Throughout the six-month certification process, SAGE embraced the process as an opportunity to better serve its customers. Communicating that message to the on-site staffers was crucial. "Teams can get nervous when they're being audited. There's fear of gaps. We wanted them to know that we were all in this together, that we shared a common goal of keeping kids with food allergies safe," Vogel says.
Both Harpeth Hall and SAGE Dining were thrilled when they finally received the certification. Harpeth Hall covered the new designation on its website, and SAGE Dining ran a press release to tout the news. "We're also thinking about how we can strengthen our partnership with FARE and expand this reach to our other communities in the near future, though we haven't worked out the details yet," says Vogel.
In the meantime, SAGE is enjoying its newfound success as a leader in the food allergy-friendly school dining space. "For FARE to give us their stamp of approval, it meant so much," Vogel says. "I have peace of mind that we're doing everything we can to keep this group of students safe."