Food Allergy Rights Coming to a University Near You?

Food allergy Rights

There is good news for everyone living with food allergies, but especially college students and the parents who worry about them. The Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights Division found in 2013 that the students with food allergies at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts qualify for rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This important step could lead to other institutions treating food allergies as a disability.

The Lesley Decision

The battle for the right to eat allergen-free food at Lesley University began because students with celiac disease found that they had few to no options in the university cafeterias. The number of diagnosed cases of celiac disease is growing, and those who struggle with this dietary limitation can become very ill from eating gluten.

The students who brought the claim against the university claimed that all students living on campus were required to pay for food services, and yet they often could not eat any of the food provided. The case against Lesley led to a settlement with the DOJ and the conclusion that the students with celiac and food allergies are protected under the ADA. The settlement came with an agreement from Lesley that it would make certain accommodations and provisions for students with food allergies or celiac disease. They agreed to:

  • Provide food choices that are allergen- and gluten-free at every meal
  • Provide signage to clearly identify foods with allergens or gluten
  • Allow affected students to pre-order allergen- or gluten-free meals
  • Have a space in the kitchen dedicated to allergen-free food preparation
  • Train staff about food allergies and celiac disease
  • Pay $50,000 in damages to the students who filed the claim

Allergies as a Disability

A question that arises from this settlement between Lesley University and the DOJ is whether or not a food allergy or celiac disease is a disability. The ADA defines a disability as an impairment, physical or mental, that significantly limits a major life activity. Eating is a life activity, and so according to the definition, someone with a severe food allergy could be considered to have a disability.

More specifically, the ADA does state that eating and the functioning of the gastrointestinal tract are major life activities. It also says that symptoms of celiac disease or food allergies, such as difficulty swallowing or breathing or anaphylactic shock, significantly limit these major life activities. This definition of a disability, along with settlements like the one at Lesley University, could lead to more food allergy rights and more protections for people affected by food allergies and celiac disease.

More Accommodations for College Students

The win at Lesley University was clearly a big one for the students immediately affected, but it also has had repercussions for all young adults living with severe food allergies and celiac disease. With both awareness and legislation come important changes for everyone affected by these issues. More colleges are now voluntarily offering allergen-free foods, gluten-free foods and, especially importantly, dedicated preparation areas for these foods.

At many universities, the changes are small. They are offering more signs to label the ingredients in foods or are offering frozen meals that can be easily prepared without contamination with allergens. Others are stepping it up even further. Some, like Franklin and Marshall College, Brown University and College of the Holy Cross, have created entire kitchens that are allergen- and gluten-free with foods made to order by staff specially trained in food allergies and food preparation.

Some schools have even eliminated nuts, one of the most problematic allergens, from their dining halls. The schools making the changes report a little bit of pushback from other students, those complaining about having their food options limited to accommodate a minority. However, most also report that those complaints become fewer over time as students adjust.

The need to make accommodations for students with food allergies and celiac disease is important. For those with life-threatening allergies, these accommodations mean they get to join in on the social experience of dining in the cafeteria with their peers. As the growing number of children with food allergies grow up, expect to see more academic institutions making changes to welcome them.


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