The Other 60 Percent

Online menu helps food-allergic kids

Add this to the list of challenges youngsters with severe food allergies have to put up with – getting to the school lunchroom and discovering that there’s nothing  on the menu they can safely eat.

Colorado Springs schools, like many school districts, is moving toward healthier meals, such as this teriyaki chicken with brown rice entree.

Jamie Humphrey, administrative dietician with Colorado Springs School District 11, knows that’s happened to kids. And while the district always offers a “gluten-free special of the day” for students with special dietary needs, that doesn’t always accommodate the range of students’ food allergies.

Some youngsters simply always must bring lunch from home. But some parents fear that children who never get to go through the lunch line feel left out, and they want schools to do better at ensuring allergic children always have at least some choices available.

A Denver company, Gipsee, which makes a variety of technology products for restaurants to accommodate patrons with food allergies, has teamed with the District 11 to provide a similar service to students.

System gets positive response

The AllerSchool system debuted in Colorado Springs this fall and, so far, it’s gotten good reviews from parents and food service officials.

It works like this: Parents of a child with severe food allergies register their child with the district’s Food & Nutrition Services. When they do, they’re given an identifying code that’s used to log into the district’s weekly menu website, allowing parents to see what will be served at each school each day and the exact ingredients in each menu item.

Michaela Sawyckyj, 7, dines on a special gluten-free meal provided for her by her school, Martinez Elementary in Colorado Springs.

Parents can screen for certain items – common allergens such as dairy or nuts or wheat or for more exotic allergens – and feel confident that whatever items pass the screen will be safe for their child. If there’s little or nothing on a given day’s menu that a food-allergic child can safely eat, parents can order a special meal for their child.

“It’s usually something made with gluten-free bread and may not be a super-desirable item for the kids,” acknowledged Humphrey.

“But it does allow our students to eat more regular meals. Before, it was difficult. They might look out our menu and say ‘There’s nothing I can eat.’ This way, there’s no question at all. Parents have all the information at their fingertips, and with each child having a customized profile it takes away all the guesswork. … They know it will be safe.”

For Sheila Sawyckyj, mother of a first-grader with Celiac disease, the AllerSchool system has been a huge gift.

“She knows when she’s being left out,” she said of daughter Michaela, a student at Martinez Elementary School in Colorado Springs. “We warned her she would need to take her own lunch, but she saw other kids eating at school and she wanted to be like the other kids.”

Her daughter’s illness makes it difficult for her to eat products containing gluten. Many popular entrees served at school, such as pizza and spaghetti, have some gluten. But the sides – fruits and vegetables – usually do not. “So for her, it’s pretty easy,” Sawyckyj said.

Once a month, Sawyckyj goes online to check the upcoming school menus, and order a special meal for Michaela on the days needed. Michaela doesn’t care much for the gluten-free sandwiches the school offers on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so on those days she usually brings her lunch. But Tuesdays and Thursdays, when the gluten-free option is taco salad or hamburgers on gluten-free bread, she goes through the lunch line.

“She’s like a different child on those days,” Sawyckyj said. “She’s happier on lunch line days. She gets more independence. She likes being able to go through the lunch line, and there’s nothing on the salad bar that can be cross-contaminated. Michaela feels secure, and she feels she has the chance to just be one of the kids. She doesn’t feel different.”

Product inspired by daughter’s experiences

Denver businessman Dilip Chopra understands Sawyckyj’s stress in trying to balance her daughter’s special needs with the emotional need to fit in. He’s the co-founder of Gipsee – and the father of a food-allergic daughter.

Learn more

“Our product was inspired by my own situation with my daughter,” he said. “She’s a senior in high school now, but throughout her growing-up years she’s had food allergies, and she could never eat in the school cafeteria. Whenever we would ask about the ingredients in the menu items, we could never get an answer. The ingredients were always changing.”

The one-time owner of a health food store, Chopra recruited a tech-savvy colleague to write the program that became AllerSchool.

District 11 is the only district to adopt AllerSchool to date, but Chopra hopes to expand it. The cost is modest: $10 to $20 per school per month. For that amount, Gipsee codes all the necessary data to show exactly which ingredients are in a given menu item.

Humphrey said an added benefit to the AllerSchool program is the extra transparency it’s given school lunchrooms as the district moves toward more scratch-based cooking.

“It’s helped us analyze our menus, break them down and see what the foods are that we should consider eliminating,” she said. “We can say we’re making all these great changes, but this allows parents to look and see for themselves. They can see, ‘This is homemade meatloaf, and it doesn’t have all these chemicals.’ I think this is really going to take off.”

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.

Battle of the Bands

How one group unites, provides opportunities for Memphis-area musicians

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Memphis Mass Band members prepare for Saturday's Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands in Jackson, Mississippi.

A drumline’s cadence filled the corners of Fairley High School’s band room, where 260 band members from across Memphis wrapped up their final practice of the week.

“M-M-B!” the group shouted before lifting their instruments to attention. James Taylor, one of the program’s five directors, signaled one last stand tune before he made his closing remarks.

“It behooves you to be on that bus at that time,” Taylor said to the room of Memphis Mass Band members Thursday night, reminding them to follow his itinerary. Saturday would be a be a big day after all.

That’s when about 260 Memphis Mass Band members will make their way to Jackson, Mississippi, for the event of the season: the Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands. They’ll join mass bands from New Orleans, Detroit, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina to showcase musical performances.

“This is like the Honda of mass bands,” said baritone section leader Marico Ray, referring to the Honda Battle of the Bands, the ultimate competition between bands from historically black colleges and universities

Mass bands are designed to connect young band members to older musicians, many of whom are alumni of college bands and can help them through auditions and scholarship applications.

Created in 2011, Memphis Mass Band is a co-ed organization that’s geared toward unifying middle school, high school, college, and alumni bands across the city. The local group is a product of a merger of a former alumni and all-star band, each then about a decade old.

Ray, who joined what was called the Memphis All Star band in 2001, said the group challenged him in a way that his high school band could not.

“I was taught in high school that band members should be the smartest people, because you have to take in and do so much all at once,” he said, noting that band members have to play, count, read, and keep a tempo at the same time.

But the outside program would put that to the test. Ray laughed as he remembered his first day of practice with other all-star members.

“I was frightened,” he said. “I knew I was good, but I wanted to be how good everybody else was.”

Ray, now 30, credits the group for his mastery of the baritone, for his college degree, and for introducing him to his wife Kamisha. By the time he graduated from Hillcrest High School in 2006 and joined the local alumni band, he was already well-connected with band directors from surrounding colleges, like Jackson State University, where he took courses in music education. After he married Kamisha, an all-star alumna and fellow baritone player, they both came back to Memphis to join the newly formed Memphis Mass Band.

“This music is very important, but what you do after this is what’s gonna make you better in life,” he said. “The goal is to make everyone as good as possible, and if you’re competing with the next person all the time, you’ll never stop trying to get better.”

In a school district that has seen many school closures and mergers in recent years, Ray said a program like MMB is needed for students who’ve had to bounce between school bands. The band is open-admission, meaning it will train anyone willing to put in the work, without requiring an audition.

“[Relocation] actually hurts a lot of our students and children because that takes their mentality away from anything that they wanted to do, versus them being able to continue going and striving,” Ray said. “Some of them lose opportunities and scholarships, college life and careers, because of a change in atmospheres.”

With its unique mix of members, though, school rivalries are common, and MMB occasionally deals with cross-system spars. But Saturday, the members will put all of that aside.

“What school you went to really doesn’t matter,” Ray said. “Everybody out here is going to wear the same uniform.”

Asia Wilson, an upcoming sophomore at the University of Memphis, heard about the group from a friend. Wilson used to play trumpet in the Overton High School band, but she said coming to MMB this year has introduced her to a different style.

Jorge Pena, a sophomore at Central High School, heard about the group on YouTube. It’s also his first year in the mass band, and the tuba player is now gearing up to play alongside members of different ages, like Wilson.

They’re both ready to show what they’ve learned at the big battle.

“It’s gonna be lit,” Wilson said, smiling.

Need weekend plans? Tickets are still selling for Saturday’s 5 p.m. showcase. To purchase, click here.