On top of challenges of food safety, convenience and nutrition, institutions must accommodate special diets or allergies. The customers of schools, hospitals and prisons depend on them for some if not all their meals, so ignoring dietary restrictions is not an option.

“If you look at the end consumer in each channel, they reflect society as a whole,” said Jerry Smiley, partner at Strategic Growth Partners, Inc., Roselle, IL. Any allergies or special diets growing in the general population will be mirrored among these food service customers. Health concerns such as gluten sensitivity and diabetes as well as eating restrictions based on religion are all taken into consideration by food service directors.

Gluten-free can be an entry point for niche bakeries looking to gain food service customers. Schools, hospitals and correctional facilities often don’t have the time or resources to prepare gluten-free meals. “We don’t have a gluten-free kitchen, so we have to purchase items from a wholesale facility,” said Benson Li, past president of the Association for Correctional Food Service. “We would rather buy gluten-free than make it ourselves.”

Wayne Township Schools, Indianapolis, IN, accommodates gluten-sensitive students on a case-by-case basis. The school district purchases gluten-free options that have been tested and approved by the student.

Cross-contamination is a real concern in hospitals as food service directors try to feed gluten-sensitive patients. Hospitals look for individually packaged items that can be placed on a hospital tray to deliver the most allergen-free meal possible. 

Hospitals and correctional facilities also need to create meals for diabetics with no added sugars and entrees that meet kosher and halal standards to respect the religious affiliations of patients or inmates.