In 2012, the United States Department of Justice ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act applied to students with food allergies at Lesley University, in Cambridge, Mass. The ruling came after students at the private university filed a complaint to the Justice Department saying the college and its foodservice provider, Bon Appètit, violated their civil rights by requiring them to purchase meal plans and not providing allergy-free foods.
The university settled the lawsuit and agreed to do and provide specific services for all students with food allergies. FM spoke with Dan Newman, executive director of academic support services at Lesley, about how the university has dealt with the aftermath of the settlement.
FM: Since the settlement, what has Lesley done to comply with the agreement?
DN: The main thing we’re trying to do is offer a comprehensive service so that students are informed clearly about the process of accommodations. I’m not saying we didn’t do that before.
And to have the process clear, for example, on our website and student handbook, so that it’s very clear about the process that one goes through. In order to receive accommodations you first have to show proper documentation from a physician or a nutritionist. This shows two things. One, that you have a disability but secondly it shows what the conditions are because there are a vast amount of allergies and syndromes so we need to know clearly so we can work with the student.
FM: Once a student has gone through the disability accommodation process, what options are available to them in the dining program?
DN: In our main dining hall, we have a separate room and it’s an allergen-free room. In it is a sink, a refrigerator and storage areas so students who have the documented disability and are working with our office have a card swipe and only they can get in there. Students can order specialized groceries that are appropriate for them. For example, even though we have gluten-free food available there may be such an issue that there are certain brands that will really set off their disability. So we have a system in which they can order through my office, a week ahead of time, foodstuff, so breads, pastas and things like that. They send it to us, and we forward that to Bon Appètit. They make the orders and they bring the food in to this room. The food is marked for the student and the student gets it and can cook food for himself. This room is new since the settlement.
FM: How are allergy-friendly options labeled in the dining halls?
DN: Bon Appètit marks a “V” for vegan and “G” for gluten free. There’s always an area right up front that has all the gluten-free foods and it’s very clearly marked. Some students have such a high intolerance that even if it’s cooked in the same area [as non gluten-free foods] that’s problematic; that’s why they can order their own foodstuffs and order their own meals. Even if they don’t come through my office or they’ve maybe come with a friend, there is a very clearly marked sign that says please see the food manger and they can talk at that moment.
FM: You mentioned students can order their own gluten-free meals?
DN: One thing about Lesley is it’s an urban campus, so we have different sites. It’s not like a quad and everyone is in one spot. If they needed something from the main kitchen, White Hall, they can order a meal and we have vans and they would deliver it to the area they are in. We haven’t been using that much because every site has an appropriately staffed and functioning kitchen.
Staff training, working in the trenches
FM: Another part of the settlement was doing staff training. Tell me about that.
DN: We do this anyways, but we do training with staff in student life about our policies and procedures. We also work with CAs (community advisors in the dorms) because they are very important. They are that first level. They may see a student not looking well and say I have celiac and the CA can say you need to go see Dan Newman. So they are trained not to diagnose or go through documentation but rather to know who to talk to.
We also work with health services so they know because it might come up at that point. We work with counseling department as well. All the student life division is working together. We do training once or twice a year to make sure they know who to talk to if these issues have come up.
FM: What else have you done to meet the settlement requirements?
DN: I go with people from disabilities and our director and we do a tour twice a year where we go through and check out the kitchens and see what everyone is doing. So if we see that there is only one panini press and if a student brings his own gluten-free bread to make a panini and there is only one press, we say you need to get a separate panini press. Those types of things. We were always doing this stuff; we’re just being more apparent and enforcing the message more.
FM: What advice would you give to others?
DN: Work with students. And work with those people who are in the trenches, so to speak. Maybe shadow a student and see what they experience as they go through the process. Also, work with all obvious stakeholders and those beyond. So for example, what would residence halls have to do with it? Well, a lot. That’s a front line where the university is maybe speaking to students where they may determine they have a disability. Think of it really comprehensively throughout the university to work with everyone who may touch students. The other thing is to have a really good relationship with your food provider and listen to them.