February, 2013 – A recent agreement reached between the U.S. Department of Justice and a private university in Massachusetts is one of the boldest positions taken on the rights of people (in this case students) to be able to eat safely.
Here was the issue: Back in 2009 a few students at Lesley University in Cambridge complained that their civil rights were being violated under the Americans with Disabilities Act because the university made no accommodations in either the meal plan or other food services for celiac disease and food allergies. At least one student with celiac disease had to purchase the meal plan, though it didn’t have gluten-free options.
The Department of Justice thought the complaint had merit and investigated. The DOJ’s conclusion: “Food allergies may constitute a disability under the ADA.” The department specifically noted the damage that repeated consumption of gluten can do to those with celiac disease, “leading to vitamin deficiencies that deny vital nourishment to the brain, nervous system, bones, liver and other organs”.
The administrators at Lesley University, a private university known for its education and arts programs and a neighbor to ivy league Harvard University, could see the seriousness of the DOJ’s position. They decided to settle.
Under the agreement, announced with little fanfare at the end of December, Lesley U. said it would amend its food services policies to provide gluten- and allergen-free food options in its dining halls, work with affected students on individualized meal plans, allow pre-ordering of safe meals and set up a dedicated space for preparing and storing allergen-free foods. The food services staff are now undergoing training on allergy issues, and the university has agreed to pay the students who complained $50,000 in compensatory damages.
This is big-time accommodation and a big win for the food allergy and celiac communities. It serves notice that those on medically restricted diets have a right to eat where they learn without fear that their food will make them seriously, potentially dangerously ill. It acknowledges that students with allergies and celiac should be able to live in a dorm setting and rely on the food service personnel to have the knowledge and inclination to make them a meal that hasn’t been cross-contaminated.
But it’s not entirely clear yet how far-reaching the implications of the Lesley agreement will be. After the quiet release of this agreement, legal scholars, educators and others are now debating this.
To help understand the bigger picture of the Lesley U. agreement, Allergic Living columnist Gina Clowes  is interviewing the senior counsel from the Department of Justice on this case and ADA legal specialists for the magazine’s Spring edition . I think readers will find it fascinating to learn more about this important precedent. I know I will.
Update: Gina Clowes’ article is now available online here .