The agreement says that food allergies may constitute a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act, if they are severe enough. The definition was made possible under 2009 amendments to the disability law that allowed for episodic impairments that substantially limit activity.
“By preventing people from eating, they are really preventing them from accessing their educational program,” Hill said of the school and its students.
Mary Pat Lohse, the chief of staff and senior adviser to Lesley University’s president, says the school has been working with the Justice Department for more than three years to address students’ complaints. She says the school has already implemented most parts of the settlement and will continue to update policies to serve students who need gluten-free foods.
“The settlement agreement provides a positive road map for other colleges and universities to follow with regard to accommodating students with food allergies and modifying existing food service plans,” Lohse said.
Some say the Justice Department decision goes too far. Hans von Spakovsky, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation who worked in the civil rights division of the Justice Department under President George W. Bush, says food allergies shouldn’t apply under the disability act. He adds that the costs could be substantial when schools are already battling backlash from high tuition costs.
“I certainly encourage colleges and universities to work with students on this issue, but the fact that this is a federal case and the Justice Department is going to be deciding what kind of meals could be served in a dining hall is just absurd,” he said.
Whether the government is involved or not, schools and other food service establishments are likely to hear from those who want more gluten-free foods. Dhanu Thiyagarajan, a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh, said she decided to speak up when she arrived at school and lost weight because there were too few gluten-free options in the cafeteria. Like Lesley University, the University of Pittsburgh requires that on-campus students participate in a meal plan.