Good News: People With Food Allergies Can Claim Disability. Bad News: They Can Sue Us All.

food allergy disability

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

Share This Post:
    • David Wood

      as one with food allergies there are restaurants I can’t even enter as i start having reactions as i walk in the door, Seafood is the one thing that i read for in all labels as i am shopping

    • minx31

      You can’t require that students purchase a meal plan and then not provide them with food they can eat. Celiac disease, which precipitated the lawsuit, isn’t an allergy – it’s an autoimmune disease, more like diabetes than a peanut allergy. If someone has celiac and gets even minimal exposure to gluten (think a crumb), they can be sick for days or weeks- diarrhea, vomiting, fatigue, headaches, skin rash, etc. Long term, it can lead to malnutrition, vitamin deficiency, anemia, cancer, and other auto-immune conditions. Eating at a college cafeteria would be a challenge, because it is really, really, really hard to avoid contaminating gluten-free foods prepared in a shared kitchen with gluten, if you don’t know what you’re doing. And it would be really, really hard to go to college while constantly being ill.

      I can understand why the student would be upset to spend thousands of dollars on food that was essentially unsafe, and it seems like the school could have just exempted this student from the required meal plan and saved itself a big headache. I don’t see how people with celiac disease or allergies could use this to sue a random restaurant, unless the restaurant advertised itself as safe for those with allergies. After all, it’s not like you’re required to eat at that restaurant. But schools, hospitals, prisons? If they require that you eat their food, and they won’t let you bring in something of your own, then yes, they should be required to make sure that the food won’t kill you.

    • Ali Farrell

      I am a diagnosed Celiac, so this gives me hope. I had a similar problem at my university, but I appealed my meal plan requirement and was reimbursed. I sure would have preferred 50k though! Obviously no one is forced to eat anywhere, but it becomes a problem of accessibility and inclusiveness. Someone who is wheelchair bound could theoretically stay at home all day–we don’t FORCE them to go anywhere. But a normal activity of daily living is moving about, as is eating. I do think that restaurants and other food providers should face lawsuits–because let’s be honest, that’s how change happens. Restaurants can become so much more accommodating if they fear repercussions for their negligence in providing safe food for everyone. The worst is the ignorance and dishonesty. I have been lied to on several occasions at restaurants: “The gluten will get burned right off!” I have a right to know what I’m putting in my body, and the service industry and food manufacturers have a duty to tell me. Of course, people with food allergies and other conditions like Celiac need to be their own advocates and make educated decisions, but the term “difficult” does not begin to describe social situations that involve food when the providers are ignorant of serious, medically dictated dietary restrictions. I hope this decision helps to make life easier for the millions of people who suffer from allergies and Celiac disease.

    • Dylan Cassady

      I am also a diagnosed Celiac and also have a peanut allergy, so you can imagine my relief when this ruling came out. I have, on several occasions, been stranded in a part of the country where there is not a single bit of food I can eat. I don’t want to embarrass anybody so I will refrain from saying that Baltimore Airport is the least accommodating place I have ever found. Even the salads there had gluten, since they were all packaged with croutons. I have hope that this ruling will spark a change, both in the providing of gluten-free alternatives and in the education of those serving them. The most prevalent example of this ignorance is the issue of cross contamination. I would like to never have to explain why taking the bun off the hamburger does not magically make it gluten-free again. Hopefully something can be done to help those 1 in 133 people who suffer from this disability.