People with food allergies can have a tough time eating out–and even eating in, thanks to confusing food labels and a shortage of allergen-free options. But thanks to a landmark settlement reached last month over the cafeteria food at a Massachusetts college, the food allergy-stricken have a lot more leverage in getting gluten-free, peanut-free, dairy-free options on the menu: federal disabilities law. The good news is that it could force restaurants and food companies to take peoples’ dietary restrictions a little more seriously. The bad news is that it could mean that companies–both big and small–start getting sued when they’re unable to accommodate everyone’s food allergy disability.
The lawsuit that precipitated the change started when students at Lesley University sued the school over their required student meal plan, and its lack of gluten-free food options to accommodate their dietary needs. The settlement granted $50,000 to each affected student, and the school now promises to offer gluten-free options, educate its staff on food allergies, and designate gluten-free prep areas in its kitchens to avoid cross-contamination.
Alice Bast, the President of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, said that all colleges should follow suit, arguing that “part of the college experience is being social,” and “if you can’t even eat in the school cafeteria then you are missing out on a big part of college life.”
Eve Hill of the Justice Department’s civil rights division explained that, legally, schools can’t necessarily be required to cater to all food restrictions: “We are not saying what the general meal plan has to serve or not,” she explained. “We are saying that when a college has a mandatory meal plan they have to be prepared to make reasonable modifications to that meal plan to accommodate students with disabilities.”
But she seems to agree with Bast that students deserve to have their dietary needs met: “By preventing people from eating, they are really preventing them from accessing their educational program.” And it’s by this logic that food allergies could constitute a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act, which allows for “episodic impairments that substantially limit activity.”
That’s a good thing for people whose dietary restrictions are tied to life-threatening reactions to food (those of us who prefer to avoid dairy, gluten, or even meat have the luxury of not going into anaphylactic shock when we accidentally bite into our undesired foods). But for small businesses and even schools that don’t have the budget to accommodate everyone’s food allergy, lawsuits and settlements could be crippling.
How accountable do you think businesses and schools should be for catering to food allergies? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments section below.
Photo: Elvert Barnes