Children with special dietary requirements still face hardships at schools

September 19, 2017

Children with special dietary requirements still face hardships at schools
Photo: Flickr/Pedro Reyna

Two years have passed since the government reformed educational institution catering, putting greater emphasis on providing dishes for children with special dietary requirements.  However, many institutions still struggle to provide dishes according to the law, reports abcug.hu.

The regulation effective since September 2015 aims to provide food to children with special dietary requirements in the kindergarten and school catering system. Before the reform, children with such requirements in most cases were fully excluded from educational institution catering.

According to the 2015 reform, in accordance with European Union regulations, hospitals, child protection, child welfare, and social and educational institutions have to provide dishes free of:

  • Gluten
  • Eggs
  • Lactose
  • Fish
  • Nuts
  • Soy
  • Oilseeds
  • Celery
  • Mustard
  • Sesame
  • Sulphites
  • Shellfish
  • Mollusks
  • Lupine

The ordinance issued by the Ministry of Human Resources stipulates that “if the material, personal and technical conditions required for preparing special diet dishes are not assured,” institutions have to order food from a catering provider. According to abcug.hu’s sources, this, especially in smaller settlements, is harder than it seems.

In the 5200-citizen Pest county village of Kartal, the council oversees the catering of the local nursery, kindergarten and elementary school. The settlement’s kitchen is not suitable for preparing special diet dishes yet, so the council decided to contract a catering company to fulfill the legal requirements. However, the council could not find a single contractor that met all the requirements. “We asked for tenders from catering companies but none of the contacted companies deal with this [special diet dishes],” the village notary, Mrs. Zoltán Balogh, told abcug.hu.

This leaves Kartal parents of children with special dietary needs with two options. They either take out their children for lunch outside the school or give their children home-cooked allergen-free food that the cafeteria staff re-heats in the school. The latter option is well-known among parents, as before the reform it was the only option to cater children with special dietary requirements. However, this needs flexibility on the part of cafeteria personnel, since storing “food of unknown source” is problematic for food safety reasons.

Bigger settlements with hospitals find it less challenging to prepare multiple kinds of diet food. In the Fejér county capital, Székesfehérvár, special diet food for elementary and high school students is prepared by the kitchen of the county hospital. “In practice, it looks like this: food arrives in schools in food boxes labeled with the names of the children,” chief director of the Székesfehérvár Institutional Centre overseeing catering Ágnes Eszéki told abcug.hu. Eszéki noted that 9,000 students receive food in the catering system on a daily basis, out of which some 70 students have special dietary requirements. This, she stressed, is enough of a challenge to handle every day. Moreover, even bigger towns such as Székesfehérvár cannot provide allergen-free snacks to children, while children without special requirements receive two snacks in addition to the lunch every day. The director also voiced her concern regarding the maintainability of the current catering scheme, namely should the number of children with special dietary requirements increase, the current solution will no longer be sufficient. While, Eszéki continued, there are still very few catering companies that have a suitable kitchen and infrastructure to prepare diet food.

Covering the higher costs of special diet catering is also challenging for some institutions. A Budapest mother told abcug.hu that although according to the law her kindergarten daughter who has coeliac disease is entitled to receive diet food free of charge at the kindergarten cafeteria, the principal of the private kindergarten refused to abide the law, arguing that the law does not apply to private institutions. The mother eventually took her daughter to a public kindergarten where she receives allergen-free food.

The strongest sign of the failure of the 2015 reform is that the government is already preparing to further tighten the regulation. Magyar Nemzet revealed a bill in May, according to which the government would centralize the selection procedure of public catering providers all over the country. Should the bill be adopted, the new system would be introduced gradually in schools, kindergartens, and other educational institutions.

Abcug.hu contacted the Ministry of Human Resources to get information about the exact number of institutions that currently meet the requirements and provide special diet food to students, and also to learn whether there is a government strategy to increase the number of capable institutions. The ministry has yet to reply.