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Gluten-Free Options in U.S. Schools and Facilities Are Lacking

Posted Oct 11 2011 6:34pm
A celiac diagnosis usually represents the road to recovery and a higher quality life for most patients. After all, the treatment for celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, is simple and effective: a gluten-free diet. Unfortunately, sticking to a gluten-free diet in the U.S. can be rather challenging, especially for children and hospitalized and elderly people. It's time that our country's institutions-schools, hospitals, and nursing homes-step up to the plate with gluten-free options so that the celiac and gluten-sensitive community can treat their medical condition properly and be properly nourished.

   The gluten-free diet is not merely a health fad. Although many Americans have begun eating gluten-free to enjoy better health, there are millions of Americans who need to eliminate gluten completely from their diets or they can put themselves at serious risk for physical and mental complications of celiac disease. When celiac patients ingest gluten, the villi of the small intestine-the finger-like structures that absorb the nutrients of digested food-are attacked, resulting in malabsorption of vital nutrients. The various symptoms of celiac disease include migraines, chronic diarrhea, chronic constipation, anemia, and chronic fatigue. It is estimated that 1% of the population, or about 3 million Americans, have this condition. It's been estimated by the Center for Celiac Research that approximately six percent of the U.S. population, or 18 million people, are sensitive to gluten, meaning that they have similar symptoms as celiac patients without evidence of intestinal damage.

   Despite its prevalence, celiac disease remains severely undiagnosed. Of the three million Americans with the disease, it's estimated that only 3% have been properly diagnosed. It can also take many years of wrong diagnoses before a patient is finally correctly diagnosed, as many physicians still aren't aware of the disease's prevalence or its range of symptoms. This general lack of celiac disease awareness has led to a startling lack of gluten-free options in our country's institutions such as schools, nursing homes, and hospitals, even despite the fact that the gluten-free diet is the highest-grossing sector of the foods industry.

   As it stands, there are very few gluten-free options in American schools and facilities. A retirement community called GenCare recently became the first to become gluten-free food service accredited. Celiac and gluten-sensitive elderly people all over the country aren't able to enjoy gluten-free food that is guaranteed safe-that is, free of the risk of cross-contamination. People are even refused from retirement communities because their special dietary needs aren't able to be met. Cynthia Kupper, RD, the Executive Director Gluten Intolerance Group of North America (GIG) called the GenCare's dedication to providing gluten-free options great news for mature adults who want to enjoy good health as they age. It's time that other nursing homes follow suit.

   In order to implement gluten-free options into schools, the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness with the aid of the United States Department of Agriculture developed guidelines to help children and their parents create a gluten-free meal program for children with celiac disease. Unfortunately the program was developed for celiac children, not just gluten-sensitive children. According to Celiac.com, however, this program will soon be ending, leaving children without the ability to eat gluten-free foods prepared at school.

   In the meantime, there are some things you can do to help increase gluten-free options in facilities. For instance, you can bring the Celinal Foods Gluten Free Be Ready Kit to the attention of the lead dietitian at a facility such as a hospital, school, prison, and adult daycare centers. With the help of your local celiac support group, you can carry out a campaign to educate local facilities such as hospitals and nursing homes on providing gluten-free options. You can also pack healthy, gluten-free lunches for celiac children in the meantime until their needs are able to be met at school.

   With nearly 25 million people eating gluten-free, and 21 million Americans doing so for medical reasons, it's time that U.S. schools, care facilities, and hospitals get on board with the gluten-free diet by providing options for safely-prepared gluten-free foods. There are many individuals and organizations out there working hard to make this possible, but we need to step up our efforts to make this happen quickly on a broad scale.

Tina Turbin  

Resources:

About.com: Gluten Free Be Ready Kit Helps Hospitals Feed Celiac Patients http://www.celiac.com/blogs/244/Gluten-Free-School-Lunch-Program-Expiring---Tell

Celiac.com: Celiac.com: Gluten-Free Living For Seniors http://www.celiac.com/blogs/261/Gluten-Free-Living-For-Seniors-Retirement-Living
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