You are here

Beyond the News

Food (Allergy) Fight: Safe Student Dining a Right

University Business, Feb 2013
cafeteria food

Continually provide both hot and cold gluten-free and allergen-free options in dining hall food lines. Allow students to pre-order allergen-free meals. Provide a dedicated space in the main dining hall to store and prepare gluten-free and allergen-free foods and to avoid cross-contamination. Those are just a few of the amended policies and practices that Lesley University (Mass.) has agreed to in a settlement reached under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities by public accommodations, including colleges and universities, in their full and equal enjoyment of goods, services, and facilities.

An unnamed number of students at Lesley, which has a total undergraduate and graduate enrollment of more than 8,300 (including about 2,500 undergrads), sued the institution for not providing adequate/safe dining options for them. Considering the $50,000 in compensatory damages awarded to the students and the Justice Department ruling that having safe dining options is a right, those in celiac disease and food allergies circles are celebrating.

As the author of the Gluten Dude blog worded it, the settlement makes clear “to colleges, universities, schools, summer camps, and other types of ‘public accommodation’ (maybe even restaurants?) that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, they need to provide safe food for Celiacs and people with food allergies or risk being sued.”

Campus dining services departments and dining service providers have made strides in recent years to accommodate people with food allergies, as awareness grows about how an autoimmune response to certain foods may include symptoms as serious as anaphylaxis, which untreated may cause death. “In recent years, we've noticed more schools changing their approach to food allergy management by implementing improved procedures to help keep students with food allergies safe at campus dining service establishments,” says John L. Lehr, CEO of Food Allergy Research & Education (formed in late 2012 by the merger of the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network and the Food Allergy Initiative). He hopes the Lesley case “will prompt all colleges and universities to take a look at their own procedures to ensure they are implementing safe protocols to help students with food allergies have a safer college experience.”

The Celiac Disease Foundation’s chief operating officer, Marilyn G. Geller, calls the settlement “a great step forward.” From her perspective, there is more awareness of celiac disease, in which the small intestine sustains damage and other health problems may result when foods containing gluten are eaten, but change is slow. “Cross-contamination is still an issue,” she notes.

While individuals with food allergies coming to campus tend to interact with the dining services and/or residence life offices first, the Lesley settlement will likely result in campus disabilities services offices getting more involved. Still, says L. Scott Lissner, president of the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD), “most individuals with food allergies, including students with celiac or other serious conditions, don’t think of themselves as having a disability.” Historically, disability services offices would be contacted by dining or residence life officials in cases of highly sensitive individuals (such as those with peanut allergies) or when an issue couldn’t be worked out, adds Lissner, the ADA coordinator in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at The Ohio State University. The Lesley situation “won’t cause a rash of unsupported requests [to these offices], but I do think it will increase requests,” he says. In addition, he predicts, those involved in AHEAD may well “see an uptick in conversation and collaborative reviews of policies.”

Lissner suggests campus administrators make students aware that both the dining and disabilities services offices can be informed about serious food allergies. As for the need to make changes on their own campuses, he says the settlement doesn’t mention anything that “seems particularly difficult for colleges.” In addition, “they’ve left room for colleges to fall back on, ‘We don’t believe we can safely accommodate you in your dining facilities. Here’s an option: We can let you off the meal plan.’”

Yet, officials may want to keep in mind the full college experience. “Dining services are a part of our social and educational program,” says Lissner. “If I want to eat in the café by the law school, making me go eat at the allergy-friendly café on the other end of campus is not very easy to do. … As dining halls have changed into dining services, the service needs to be accessible.”