Food Allergies Are Now A Disability Under ADA

A friend just forwarded me an email she received from an education service offering a webinar–costing about $300–regarding student allergies and the new liabilities faced by college food programs. Under the new applications of the Americans With Disabilities Act, wheelchair access is no longer enough.

When I went to college, it was a tiny town with very few businesses other than the college itself. Students were expected to join the food plan and live in the dorms. I figured early on that, despite the “middle of nowhere” location, I could save money if I was permitted to find my own housing in the area and do my own shopping and cooking. In retrospect, it would have helped me a great deal to try and learn to do these things rather than spend four years as a “kept” student. But the college wanted me to only pay them for food and shelter, so they didn’t give me such permission. To be a student I had to obey their rules

Lesley University is not nearly so isolated, but it has the same mandatory policy about its student cafeteria. There was a problem however. Several students had Celiac disease. They needed to eat gluten free in order to not get sick.

So naturally they told the college and the college allowed them an exception to the mandatory cafeteria plan, letting them keep the money and use it to buy gluten-free food off campus. Right?

No, the students sued the college to mandate that the college accommodate them. I don’t feel sorry for Lesley because, frankly, I still bear a grudge against all colleges that use this business model so that students are forced to pay for services they don’t want on condition of being a student. (Of course, that was the organization’s choice. I never dreamed of suing over it.) Now it has turned into a big expense because the only way to provide economical food is to be able to buy in bulk and mass produce the meals. That is no longer possible. Lesley University did not even fight for their right to determine what food they will provide. They caved and made the following concessions. They will:

  • Provide gluten-free and allergen-free food options in its dining halls;
  • Allow students with known allergies or celiac disease to pre-order safe meals;
  • Display notices about food allergies and identify foods with allergens or gluten;
  • Train food service and university staff about allergy-related issues;
  • Provide a dedicated space for affected students to prepare allergen-free foods; and
  • Endeavor to find vendors that offer food without allergens.

And this is now a template for new expenses for all the schools in the US, public or private:

“Eve Hill, senior counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, told me in an interview that ‘many aspects of the agreement will serve as a model for other schools.’ She says that “each school should evaluate its food service plan to assess whether reasonable modifications for its students with disabilities are necessary to avoid discrimination.”

This is morally perverse. It is no more “unfair” for a person with a food allergy to take responsibility for it, learn about it, and deal with it, than it is for someone else to be forced to do so. Yes, the students should be allowed to opt out of the meal plan and then use the money in a way that better meets their needs. But in principle this means every single different food allergy is a new impending lawsuit and a new set of rules for college meal plans to follow. I know plenty of friends who require gluten free diets, and they all make their own choices and accept the responsibility to do so. Students should be given the opportunity to learn to take care of themselves.

A culture and economy that encourages everyone to make everyone else pay for one’s needs is not going to prosper.