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Gov’t: Food allergies may be disability under law

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The Department of Justice recently ruled severe food allergies as a disability in a settlement with Lesley University.

A legal settlement with a Massachusetts college has broad implications for food service at U.S. colleges and universities.

The Justice Department said in a recent settlement with Lesley University that severe food allergies can be considered a disability under the law. That gives those who suffer from such allergies a new avenue in seeking menus that fit their diet. But the decision leaves schools, restaurants, and other places that serve food more exposed to legal challenges if they fail to honor requests for accommodations by people with food allergies. Colleges and universities are especially vulnerable, because they know their students and often require them to eat on campus, Eve Hill of the Justice Department’s civil rights division says.

The settlement with Lesley University, reached last month but drawing little attention, will require the Cambridge, Mass., institution to serve gluten-free foods and make other accommodations for students who have celiac disease. At least one student had complained to the federal government after the school would not exempt that student from a meal plan, even though the student couldn’t eat the food.

“All colleges should heed this settlement and take steps to make accommodations,” says Alice Bast, president and founder of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. “To our community, this is definitely a precedent.”

Under the 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 contamination, train staff about food allergies, and pay a $50,000 cash settlement to affected students.

(Next page: How the Department of Justice’s settlement has inspired strong “for” and “against” reactions.)

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