Colleges may be put on notice by a Department of Justice ruling that will require special accommodations for students with severe food allergies.
The decision came after some students at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., protested that their food services and meal plans didn’t meet their dietary needs.
When the dust settled, the Justice Department ruled that severe food allergies classify as disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Lesley was fined $50,000 to the students who filed the claim in 2009. The university was also ordered to provide special accommodations that include gluten-free and allergen-free food choices.
But even before the legal action, Sodexho dining manager Kyle Grover was addressing the issue of food intolerances in cafeteria offerings by using signs to designate items that are gluten-free, a growing health issue.
“We have gluten-free options at every station in the cafeteria,” Grover said.
To help food-sensitive students adjust to their new college environment, he gives students and parents a tour of the cafeteria so they know where they can access items best suited for their diet.
“We want to make sure that the students feel comfortable and at home here,” Grover said. “That is our first priority.”
In early February, Belmont announced plans for a new cafeteria, and Grover said it is set to include an entire station with more gluten-free and food-sensitive choices.
“All we really want to do is offer the biggest variety possible for our students and maintain integrity in our program,” Grover said.
Despite the ruling, not all universities think the changes in the Lesley settlement are necessary.
“It shocked me that some schools were looking for ways to sidestep the issue instead of just making the necessary changes to accommodate their students,” Grover said.
Belmont joins Brown University and Marshall College, among others, who aim to provide food services, housing and medical care that accommodate students with specific food allergies and intolerances.
Katy Wilson, director of Health Services, said Belmont is able to do this by consistently keeping open lines of communication between departments.
“We’re very connected in our concern for the students,” Wilson said. “Every department, from Residence Life to Health Services to Sodexho, works together to make sure that the student is in the safest and most accessible environment Belmont has to offer.”
In that environment, Belmont has to continue to address a rise in gluten sensitivities or intolerances. While the intolerances are less serious than allergies, they’re still a health issue. Allergies to some foods such as peanuts or shellfish can be life threatening.
Whether the issue is a food allergy or an intolerance, the first line of defense comes with the student.
Belmont senior Madeline Chambers was diagnosed with gluten intolerance in 2010, during her first semester at Belmont. Chambers didn’t renew her on-campus dining plan in the spring.
“At that time, there weren’t very many options for me,” Chambers said.
Gluten is a protein composite found in foods processed from wheat and related grain species, including oat, barley and rye. A person who is gluten “intolerant” may experience stomachaches, headaches, and bloating, as well as severe cramping and lethargy.
The Caf now offers several gluten-free items, but Chambers is not going to reactivate her food plan. Since she’s learned about her gluten intolerance, she said she finds it easier to shop for food on her own.
“That way, I can stick with the brands I know I like,” Chambers said.
But for those students who live on campus and don’t have access to a kitchen, Grover said the Caf would continue to expand the choices for food-sensitive dietary needs.