SCARBOROUGH – After picking up a tangerine and two chocolate milks, Grace Murphy detoured from the lunch line and went into the kitchen at Wentworth Intermediate School.

Waiting for her was a freshly baked rice-flour crust pizza — Wednesday’s regular gluten-free option in Scarborough schools and the fifth-grader’s favorite school lunch.

“It’s really good. It’s always good,” Grace said after digging into a cheesy slice.

Scarborough is among the Maine school districts that are adjusting their cafeteria options for a growing number of students who don’t eat gluten, a protein in wheat, rye, barley and triticale.

In addition to foods that obviously are made with those grains, gluten can be in condiments, luncheon meats and vitamins that contain additives like thickeners and binding agents.

Grace, an outgoing 10-year-old with a big smile framing the green elastics on her braces, has celiac disease, a condition in which eating gluten damages the interior of the small intestine. Grace went to the doctor because she wasn’t growing and suffered from stomachaches.

Other people must avoid gluten because of wheat allergies or other intolerances.

In response to requests for gluten-free foods, Scarborough rolled out a gluten-free menu this school year with standard offerings for each day of the week, said Judith Campbell, the school nutrition program’s director. About 10 students have been partaking.

The state doesn’t track how many districts provide gluten-free meals, but anecdotally, it’s clear that a growing number of students are requesting them, said Gail Lombardi, program manager in the state Department of Education’s Child Nutrition Services.

She said more children are being diagnosed at a younger age because doctors now test family members of patients who are gluten-intolerant.

Schools are responding in various ways as awareness of gluten grows.

Portland Food Service Director Ronald Adams is exploring whether the district can buy frozen gluten-free meals from Jeanie Marshal Foods. The Bangor-based vendor has a gluten-free pizza crust for food service programs, and is developing meals for school systems, said Jim Sorbello, regional sales manager for the company.

In Biddeford, the staff determines where changes are needed for the handful of students who need gluten-free meals, said Sandy Lewis, the food service supervisor. Unbreaded chicken may fill in for chicken nuggets, and gluten-free cupcakes made from supermarket mixes can be dessert.

“We’re just trying to fill the gaps. They’re going to have a little different tray,” she said.

In a previous job in the medical field, Mary Emerson saw that children on gluten-free diets did better when the whole family adhered to the diet. Otherwise, the diet felt punitive.

So she tries to keep the gluten-free meals similar to those that the other children eat in School Administrative Districts 55 and 72, around Hiram and Fryeburg, where Emerson is school nutrition director. She makes an exception for bread because kids don’t like the texture of gluten-free slices.

“They were going right into the wastebasket — and they’re expensive,” she said.

On Wednesday morning, Leslie Dumais, the kitchen manager at Wentworth Intermediate School, added sauce and mozzarella to the pre-made gluten-free crust and wrapped it so it wouldn’t come into contact with other foods. At lunchtime, she baked it, then put it on a counter away from other foods, cut it into slices and covered it.

After her diagnosis last year, Grace said, she was sad about the changes to her diet. Now, she happily explains how pans at home get a thorough scrubbing to rid them of any gluten, and how special menus are available at restaurants.

She enjoys hamburgers without buns, mashed potatoes, rice, and fish with special crumbs.

“I didn’t know I could have all this good food,” she said. 

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: akim@pressherald.com