Students Win Fight for Gluten-Free Options

University settlement could have broad impact

Students with celiac disease and their parents have long fought for the right to have safe, gluten-free options in college dining halls. Now they can point to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to back up their rights as the result of settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice and a Massachusetts university.

The settlement is expected to have a far-reaching effect for those with special diet needs.

It came after a complaint by gluten-free and allergic students to the Justice Department. The complaint alleged that Lesley University was violating Title III of the ADA by failing to provide “necessary reasonable modifications … to fully enjoy the privileges, advantages and accommodations of its food service and meal plan system.” The settlement, reached in December 2012, could be a game changer in making gluten-free food accessible at all schools. Some speculate its impact will be felt in a larger arena even though the settlement is specific to schools that require students to participate in a meal plan.

The settlement included the university’s agreement to provide:

  1. A $50,000 payment to the student(s).
  2. Ready-made gluten- and allergen-free food in dining halls.
  3. Individualized meal plans.
  4. A dedicated space in its main dining hall to store gluten-free and allergen-free foods.
  5. Staff training.
  6. Better signage indicating which foods are gluten-free and allergen-free and which contain gluten and allergens.

The university also agreed to create a process students can follow to have their dietary requirements met. And it agreed to work to retain vendors that include gluten- and allergen-free foods at dining sites accessed with prepaid meal cards.

Mary Pat Lohse, Lesley’s chief of staff and senior advisor to the president for strategic planning and initiatives, says the university took the Justice Department complaint very seriously and made the required changes. Lohse says it put a policy in place a few years ago to handle food allergies and gluten-free diets, but it needed updating.

“The policies in place today have evolved from where they were three years ago and reflect the concerted efforts the university has made to improve the quality and safety of the food that it provides to its students,” Lohse says.

While those who have celiac disease or gluten intolerance may not think of themselves as having a disability, the Justice Department’s decision to pursue resolution of the students’ complaint as a violation of the disabilities act sets a new precedent for gluten-free accommodations.



What this means for higher education

Dena Iverson of the Justice Department says the agreement with Lesley University “will serve as a model for other schools—particularly those that require students to participate in a meal plan.”

Lesley 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, the Justice Department says in an online question and answer page it set up to explain the settlement. 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 students from its mandatory plan if they cannot, because of disability, take full advantage of the university’s meal service plan. (The Q&A is available at

Iverson says, “Food service plans 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.”

Scott Lissner, president of the Association on Higher Education Awareness and Disability (AHEAD) and ADA coordinator at Ohio State University, says colleges and universities have to take notice of the settlement. “It sets a pattern that I think will be useful for colleges, students and employees with celiac disease and food allergies,” he notes.

Lissner says he is not surprised celiac disease and some food allergies would be considered a disability. A disability is defined by the ADA as a “mental or physical impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.” The Justice Department settlement points to “eating” and “major bodily functions like the gastrointestinal system” as examples of “major life activities.”

Lissner says he believes the Justice Department was sending a clear message that you can’t discriminate against people with food allergies. He has personal experience with the issue because he has a wheat allergy and his wife has celiac disease. Lissner says universities are probably already discussing whether changes need to be made. “I think you’ll see some little [changes] quick. Next fall, with dining plans you’ll see more clear statements referencing dietary needs, clearer paths for making accommodations,” he explains.

Another consequence of the settlement may be that those with special dietary needs will be more inclined to rely on the disabilities act when they have difficulty getting adequate accommodations. Lissner says these students don’t think of themselves as disabled and previously might not have thought of the disabilities act as having any role in their lives. He expects that more will contact their disability service office as a result of the case.

Lissner also sees this settlement eventually impacting extra-curricular school activities. He believes that offering free pizza to get students to come to an event or program won’t be enough. “Those things would be covered the same way the dining services would be covered … a lot of these activities surround food,” Lissner says. “I now need [to order] a second box of gluten-free pizza.”


Impact in elementary and secondary schools

Even before the Lesley settlement, public schools were starting to take the idea of food allergies and gluten intolerances seriously. For example, the Green Bay School District in Green Bay, Wis., started offering an updated gluten-free menu this school year.

“We are a National School Lunch Program school district, and as such it is our responsibility to substitute foods for any child who has a disability,” Laura Rowell told the Green Bay Press Gazette last February. Although the district had been offering a few gluten-free choices for about five years, this year it came up with a full menu that includes gluten-free pasta, homemade mashed potatoes and a safe gluten-free preparation process. They worked very closely with their vendors because they wanted all gluten-free foods to be certified.

“We had to look into our responsibilities from the USDA and ADA guidelines,” Rowell recently told Gluten-Free Living. “I am saddened that other food service areas aren’t taking this seriously. This is our job, to be food and service. Why not be proactive and meet the federal regulations?”

Food manufacturers are also paying attention to the impact this settlement may have on schools. “As gluten free begins to be seen as a basic accessibility issue rather than simply a diet preference, it is increasingly important for food companies to develop more gluten-free options,” Lindsey Jahn, associate editor for, an online industry publication, says.


Impact on restaurants

The settlement could also put restaurants on notice—but only to a certain point.

Iverson says the ADA doesn’t require restaurants to serve gluten-free or allergen-free food. But it recommends a restaurant take “reasonable steps” to accommodate without completely changing the business operations. Examples from the Justice Department include “answering questions from diners about menu item ingredients … or omitting or substituting certain ingredients upon request if the restaurant normally does this for other customers.”

As awareness of the gluten-free diet grows and more customers seek gluten-free meals, more restaurants are voluntarily accommodating the diet. The Gluten Intolerance Group, the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness and the Celiac Sprue Association have programs to help restaurants safely prepare and serve gluten-free food. You can use websites and phone applications like and to find restaurants that accommodate gluten-free diets. However, restaurants are not required to train their staff or offer a gluten-free menu.


The bottom line

College and university students are likely to feel the most immediate and widespread effects of the Lesley settlement. It was widely reported in the mainstream press as the first settlement of its kind, and the role of the Justice Department was seen as an indication of the seriousness of the disability claim. The damages awarded to the students and the specific steps the university agreed to are likely to be drawing serious consideration by other higher education institutions.

Elementary and secondary schools are also likely to take serious note because they, too, are bound by the ADA in providing accommodations to students. Restaurants may voluntarily try to improve the availability of gluten-free options, but they are not required to do so.

While the ripple effect of the settlement remains to be seen, it clearly is having an impact on awareness of gluten-free diets across the country. Overall, the settlement has been hailed as providing a roadmap for the way schools can meet the needs of their gluten-free and allergic students.



Tips for getting GF food in your school

Scott Lissner, president of the Association on Higher Education Awareness and Disability and Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator for Ohio State University, has these tips for getting accommodations for a gluten-free diet:


  1. Go to your school/district/university’s dietitian first. Go to the school’s website for information on dining halls, residence halls or food service. If there is a way to contact a dietitian about your school’s food plan/options, take advantage of that.
  2. If there is no option to talk to a dietitian or nutrition services, then check with disability services. At a large university it could be an entire office staff; at an elementary school it may be one person designated as the disability/ADA/504 Plan coordinator.



Amy Leger is the family editor for Gluten-Free Living and operates her own website, She has a daughter with celiac disease. Leger and her family live in Minnesota.