Gluten-free Meal Options in College
Celiac disease is an “autoimmune disorder of the small intestine.” The disorder is an immune reaction to gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley.
According to the National Institutes of Health, one in 141 people in the United States have celiac disease.
Those who have celiac disease may experience a variety of symptoms including diarrhea, abdominal pain, weight loss, mouth ulcers, and anemia. The disease may increase the risk of cancel in the small intestine and lymphoma of the small bowel. In young children, it can cause growth failure. In women, it may cause recurrent miscarriages. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coeliac_disease#Signs_and_symptoms
At this point, the only known treatment to celiac disease is a gluten free diet.
That means a diet that excludes any food containing gluten.
So, when a college student who has celiac disease and is required to pay for a meal plan that does not provide gluten-free options, it is a problem. Not only does college student pay money for a meal plan consisting of food she cannot even eat, it may also be a violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits a private college or university from discriminating against any individual on the basis of disability.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a food allergy may constitute a disability. When a person has an allergy or autoimmune response to certain food, it can affect “the major life activity of eating and the major bodily functions of the immune, digestive, bowel, and neurological systems.”
When students with celiac disease were unable to find gluten-free meal options at any of the dining facilities at their private university, Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, they filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.
Recently, the U.S. Department of Justice and Lesley University entered into a Settlement Agreement requiring that Lesley University provide gluten-free and allergen-free food options in its dining halls.
In the settlement agreement, Lesley University acknowledges that it is a public accommodation and must “make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures, when the modifications are necessary to afford goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations to individuals with disabilities…”
Under the terms of the settlement agreement, Lesley University will be required to do a number of things, including:
1. Develop an “individualized plan” for any student requesting a food or meal accommodation.
2. Post notices concerning food allergies at all of its dining halls and food eatery facilities.
3. Provide meals made without specific allergens to students with food allergies.
4. Provide students with food allergies the option of pre-ordering their meals.
5. Pay $50,000 to the individuals who filed the complaint.
More details about what Lesley University is required to do can be found in the settlement agreement.
It is clear that this case is a significant victory for college students with celiac disease. Bloggers with celiac disease are very happy with the outcome of this case — see The Savvy Celiac and The Gluten Dude.
Private colleges and universities should review the terms of the settlement agreement and then review their internal policies to avoid the likelihood of running afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In addition, this case serves as a reminder to K-12 schools to develop 504 plans for children who have celiac disease and other food allergies. I discussed this in an earlier blog article, “Food Allergies and Special Dietary Needs in School.”