ADA Highlights School Liability Exposure for Student Food Allergies
Food allergies for many are a fact of life with individuals having to make adjustments when it comes to their eating habits. But for schools a recent settlement in a case involving Lesley University in Massachusetts can end up exposing them to additional liability under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The case at Lesley involved a lawsuit stemming from a lack of gluten-free foods available to students at the Cambridge institution. At least one student complained to the federal government after the school would not exempt the student from a meal plan even though the student couldn’t eat the food.
The settlement between the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and the school requires the university to serve gluten-free foods and make other accommodations for students who have celiac disease. This was the first food allergy-related settlement under ADA in higher education, according to a DOJ spokeswoman.
Food allergies affect about 2 percent of adults and 4 to 8 percent of kids in the U.S., and the number of young people diagnosed with a food allergy has risen in the last decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By applying the ADA to food allergies, the DOJ has essentially turned food into an access issue – akin to providing ramps for students in wheelchairs.
Gluten-free diets in the last several years have expanded beyond those with celiac disease. Millions of people buy gluten-free foods because they say they make them feel better, even if they don’t have a wheat allergy. Americans were expected to spend $7 billion on gluten-free foods last year.
With so many people concerned with gluten content, colleges and universities have had to make accommodations. Some will allow students to be exempted from meal plans, while others will work with students individually.
Now these institutions may need to do even more. Under the Justice Department agreement, Lesley University says it will not only provide gluten-free options in its dining hall but also allow students to pre-order, provide a dedicated space for storage and preparation to avoid cross-contamination, train staff about food allergies and pay a $50,000 cash settlement to the affected students.
MGU Caitlin-Morgan provides insurance programs to many types of educational facilities including higher education facilities like universities, public schools, private & charter schools and schools for special needs.
Sources: NPR, AP, ADA