School helps remove gluten to the maximum

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Kelly Baralt has a disease that doesn’t allow her to eat gluten, and now her cafeteria at West Middle School is providing meals she can eat.

By Todd Martin

Middle school is a crazy time.

It's all about doing the right thing with the right people and fitting in.

And that's all Melissa Baralt wanted for her daughter Kelly, a sixth-grader at West Middle.

For years Melissa Baralt had been trying to get the school system to offer some gluten-free alternatives to work with her daughter's Celiac disease.

Celiac disease is a genetic disorder that is activated by eating gluten – found in wheat, rye and barley among other places – and reactions vary from gastrointestinal issues to anemia, bone and joint pain, behavior changes, infertility and tooth discoloration and loss of enamel.

"It's not an easy diet to follow," she said. "I remember the first time I went to the grocery store after she was diagnosed, I just cried. All the kid food, like Goldfish and Cheerios, they were off limits."

Baralt got it figured out, but it still didn't change much for Kelly.

"Every time there's a party at school, I try to find out what they're having ahead of time so I can prepare something for her, or every time there's a birthday party I try to find out what they're doing so she can have the same thing. Just the simple act of being able to buy her lunch at school is a very neat thing for her."

Kelly Baralt said that first day buying spaghetti and meatballs was memorable.

"It was really different and weird," she said. "But it was kind of exciting, too.

"It was great. It tasted normal, well, for my food."

West Middle Cafeteria Manager Pam Jones declined to be interviewed, but Evell Coomer, food services coordinator for the district, said they try to help out all students with dietary restrictions.

"There are really eight defined key allergies [milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat], and they're put on the labels," she said. "Unfortunately, gluten is more recently on the scene and it's a little different from the other allergies."

Right now it's difficult to get information from the manufacturers, so we thought the best way was to the let them get in there and look at the labels. That's not something we normally do."

Baralt said the staff at West was tremendous in helping get this done.

"They climbed in the freezer with me to read labels and move boxes," she said. "I don't know how many hours we spent back there."

And it didn't end there either, Baralt said.

As she started to worry when the day approached for Kelly to buy her lunch, she called the cafeteria to speak with Jones about possible contamination issues with gluten products.

"She was really on top of her stuff," Baralt said. "I asked about the sauce and meatballs, if they were pulled out separate, and she said she'd already done that, and the pasta was put aside so it wouldn't be near the other pasta. She was just great. I guess with all the peanut allergies out there, she really was prepared.

"They really made [Kelly] feel so comfortable and welcome."

Although there are still some items to be checked once more information is available from the manufacturer, Baralt is happy with the progress. Based on the rotating menu, Kelly can now buy her lunch three to five times a month.

"We try to take care of all our students, and gluten is a tough one," Coomer said. "But we want to try to make sure we can accommodate all those special dietary needs."

And, Baralt said, the WMS cafeteria has ordered a gluten-free pizza, but it has not arrived yet.

"It's a great start," she said.