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Dining Disabilities

January 2, 2013

As vegetarianism and eating healthy grow increasingly popular, some campus dining halls are going vegan, meatless or pork-free. But in 2013, colleges might have to start focusing less on animal protein and more on gluten – and any other ingredients that can cause debilitating allergic reactions in students.

That’s what disability and nutrition experts are saying in the wake of last month’s Department of Justice settlement agreement with Lesley University, which requires that institution to do much more so that students with serious allergies can eat safely in campus dining halls, and serves as a warning to other colleges to do the same.

The agreement answered a lingering question, said Scott Lissner, president of AHEAD: Association on Higher Education and Disability: the extent to which the Americans with Disabilities Act covered food allergies. It’s now clear that it does (at least, when the allergy can cause impairment).

“I think this settlement ups the ante,” said Lissner, who is also ADA coordinator at Ohio State University.

If a student with food allergies needed special accommodation in the dining halls in the past, Lissner said, colleges would sometimes opt to just excuse the student from the required meal plan (when it was required) rather than taking extra steps to ensure the student had a dining experience comparable to that of his or her peers. But judging by the agreement, that’s not going to fly anymore.

The Lesley settlement stemmed from a student complaint in October 2009, which alleged that the university violated ADA by neither addressing the needs of students with food allergies nor ensuring them that equivalent dining experience. (Because of celiac disease, students who filed the complaint had to maintain a gluten-free diet, meaning no wheat, barley, rye or, possibly, oats.)

Under the settlement terms, Lesley – and presumably, other institutions that want to stay in line with ADA – must do more than simply provide gluten- and allergen-free options in its food lines (though it has to do that to). It must also develop individualized meal plans for students with food allergies and allow them to preorder meals; provide a dedicated space in its main dining hall to store and prepare foods to avoid cross-contamination; display notices concerning food allergies and identify foods that contain specific allergens; train food service and staff about food allergies; and try to retain vendors that offer food without allergens.

Lesley must also pay $50,000 in damages to “previously identified students” who have celiac disease and other food allergies.

“The real shift is clearly putting this on the same level of examining, ‘Is this an undue hardship?’ as we would do anything else,” Lissner said. “The difference is really one of attention and being inclusive about dining services as a part of our program, a part of our experience…. I think over time, it’s a pretty minimal cost.”

Food allergies were already a priority at many institutions, and colleges have been finding ways to address the issue as more students have come in with more allergies, said Rachel A. Warner, director of communications and marketing at the National Association of College and University Food Services.

“Demand is certainly higher for our college and university dining programs to up with ways to accommodate the students,” Warner said. “It’s definitely top-of-mind.”

Food allergies are on the rise, and research indicates they will only intensify from here. Nearly 8 percent of children and 4 percent of adults suffer from food allergies, and the prevalence of food allergies increased 18 percent between 1997 and 2007, according to a 2008 report from the Centers for Disease Control.

Given the wide range of steps colleges are taking – labeling menus, providing locked food cabinets that only gluten-free students can access, granting meal plan exemptions, making sure students get what they need when they need it – the Lesley settlement might help to narrow the scope of what’s really necessary and helpful. “There’s certainly an investment in it,” Warner said. “Their first priority isn’t to make money, it’s to ensure there are safe and nutritious meals for their students.”

Scott Adams, a writer who was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1994 before launching websites and a journal devoted to the topic, expects the settlement to cause a ripple effect.

“Actually, I’m surprised it took this long for someone to finally sue under the ADA,” Adams said. On campuses and off, Adams said, the settlement could open the door to more lawsuits from students with, say, severe peanut allergies.

“I wonder if it’s not a slippery slope, where we’re going to have other groups using this as a precedent,” he said. “I think that definitely, the awareness is much, much bigger than it was 5 years ago or for sure 10 years ago, but I guess…. To speed things up, sometimes it takes legal action. And I think in this case it was warranted.”

 

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