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DL schools embrace gluten-free

Walk into just about any grocery store and the words “gluten free” can be splashed around the isles in food items such as pasta, bread and chips.

It isn’t as much of a health fad as it is a near necessity for people with a gluten intolerance.

“Ten years ago I hadn’t even heard of this,” said Detroit Lakes woman Kelly Gag, whose daughter, Lydia, was diagnosed with celiac disease — a condition where gluten has an adverse effect on a person’s body.

It can be as mild as a stomachache to as serious as malnutrition, liver disease and certain types of cancers. And often times, the more a person with celiac disease is exposed to gluten, the more chance they have of developing something serious.

For Lydia, the onset of the disease was apparent when she was just shy of 2 years old.

“She had started regressing in development,” said Gag. “She stopped talking, stop walking — she had what they called ‘a failure to thrive.’”

Severe diarrhea and vomiting sent little Lydia to the hospital where she was placed on IV’s and not given food.

No food meant no gluten, no gluten meant she started getting better right away. A diagnoses quickly followed.

The Gags began learning everything they could on the disease and trying to figure out how to navigate through a diet nobody seemed to know much about.

“We didn’t know what it meant,” said Gag. “Labels don’t say gluten, so you have to know what you’re looking for.”

A protein composite, gluten is in many food products that people don’t realize.

It can be found in wheat and other grains and is often used in dough to help it rise.

Aside from the obvious bread, pasta and cereals, gluten is also found in things such as soups, sauces and sometimes even candy.

The Gags found themselves ordering food online or making trips to Fargo to buy specialty items because the concept of “gluten-free” just wasn’t easy to find yet.

As Lydia entered the Detroit Lakes School system, she ate cold lunch nearly every day to avoid gluten.

“They (food services employees) tried,” said Gag, who says she got a school lunch menu that she’d go through every month to determine what Lydia could and could not eat. 

“But there wasn’t really much we could do at that time,” said Detroit Lakes Food Services Director Duane Dunrud, who says they only ever had one or two cases like this per year. “If breaded chicken was on the menu, we’d instead cook them a regular chicken breast, or if we were serving up mashed potatoes, ours are instant and contain gluten, so we’d cook up some real ones.”

Bun-less hamburgers and hotdogs and the occasional substitute was all anybody at the school could feasibly do for Lydia.

But throughout thought the last decade, the awareness of gluten intolerance has skyrocketed with the number of people suffering from celiac disease.

In Detroit Lakes, too, the number of students needing it was slowly increasing, according to Dunrud.

Some scientists believe wheat modification has led to more intolerance; others believe Americans are simply consuming more wheat products than ever before, thereby increasing the complications.

Whatever the reason, it has driven food distributors to begin catering to the growing population of people who need gluten-free food.

This means more doors have opened up for Dunrud as he plans the meals for thousands of students in the Detroit Lakes School District, including those like Lydia.

“Now I can get all kinds of gluten-free things from our distributor,” he said.  “So we can now offer gluten-free hamburger and hot dog buns, bread for sandwiches, two different kinds of pizzas, gluten-free chips for tacos, pasta, and I now even have a chicken strip that is gluten-free.”

The list of options has grown so much that Dunrud can now make up an  entire gluten-free school lunch menu for students who need it.

And, Dunrud adds, gluten-free products continue to get tastier as time goes on as well.

“We’ve done a lot of taste testing, and to be honest, a lot of this stuff we’ve tasted in the past has been terrible — I couldn’t’ believe the kids would eat it,” said Dunrud. “But this new stuff is great, the kids seem to really like it.”

And for Lydia, although she will always have to cater to her own eating habits and be careful of “cross contamination” from gluten-filled products, life is getting a little easier.

“She hasn’t brought her own lunch to school in quite a while now,” said Gag, “and that’s so nice because although she’s been really good at kind of rolling with the punches, she now gets to sit right there with her friends and eat the same thing they’re eating and not have to feel like she’s different.”