Food Allergies

U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Disability Rights Section

About the Lesley University Agreement:  

Potential Implications for Universities and Individuals with Food Allergies

On December 20, 2012, the Justice Department entered into an agreement with Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts to ensure that its students with celiac disease and other food allergies can fully and equally enjoy the university’s food services in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Lesley University previously required all students living on campus to participate in, and pay for, its meal service plan – even if some students with severe allergies could not eat the food available through the plan without risk of illness. Under the Agreement, Lesley has made modifications to its meal plan to allow students with food allergies to take advantage of its food services. The Agreement also requires Lesley to consider exempting from its mandatory plan students who cannot, because of disability, take full advantage of the University’s meal service plan.

Among other things, Lesley University agreed to:

  • Provide gluten-free and allergen-free food options in its dining hall food lines in addition to its standard meal options;
  • Allow students with known allergies to pre-order allergen-free meals;
  • Display notices concerning food allergies and identify foods containing specific allergens;
  • Train food service and university staff about food allergy-related issues;
  • Provide a dedicated space in its main dining hall to store and prepare gluten-free and allergen-free foods; and
  • Work to retain vendors that accept students’ prepaid meal cards that also offer food without allergens.

Many aspects of the Agreement will serve as a model for other schools – particularly those that require students to participate in a meal plan. However, food service plans, like Universities, are not one-size-fits-all and each school should evaluate its food service plan to assess whether reasonable modifications for its students with disabilities are necessary to avoid discrimination.

  1. Is a food allergy considered a disability under the ADA?

A: It depends. A disability as defined by the ADA is a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, such as eating. Major life activities also include major bodily functions, such as the functions of the gastrointestinal system. Some individuals with food allergies have a disability as defined by the ADA – particularly those with more significant or severe responses to certain foods. This would include individuals with celiac disease and others who have autoimmune responses to certain foods, the symptoms of which may include difficulty swallowing and breathing, asthma, or anaphylactic shock.

  1. What is Celiac disease?

A: Celiac disease is a digestive condition triggered by consumption of the protein gluten, which is primarily found in bread, pasta, cookies, pizza crust and many other foods containing wheat, barley or rye. People with celiac disease who eat foods containing gluten experience an immune reaction in their small intestines and an inability to absorb certain nutrients, leading to vitamin deficiencies that deny vital nourishment to the brain, nervous system, bones, liver, and other organs. Celiac disease affects about 1 in 133 Americans.

  1. Does the ADA require that all public accommodations that serve food, like restaurants, also serve gluten-free or allergen-free food?

A: No. The ADA does not require that every place of public accommodation that serves food to the public provide gluten-free or allergen-free food. The Lesley Agreement involved a mandatory meal program for a defined group of students living on campus.

  1. What might a restaurant or other similar place of public accommodation need to do to accommodate an individual with celiac disease or other food allergies?

A: A restaurant may have to take some reasonable steps to accommodate individuals with disabilities where it does not result in a fundamental alteration of that restaurant’s operations. By way of example only, this may include: 1) answering questions from diners about menu item ingredients, where the ingredients are known, or 2) omitting or substituting certain ingredients upon request if the restaurant normally does this for other customers.


ADA Website: