Gov't: Food Allergies May Be Disability Under Law

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Ten years ago, most people had never heard of celiac disease. But awareness has exploded in recent years, for reasons that aren't entirely clear. Some researchers say it was under-diagnosed; others say it's because people eat more processed wheat products like pastas and baked goods than in past decades, and those items use types of wheat that have a higher gluten content.

Gluten-free diets have expanded beyond people with celiac disease. Millions of people are buying gluten-free foods because they say they make them feel better, even if they don't have a wheat allergy. Americans were expected to spend $7 billion on gluten-free foods last year.

With so many people suddenly concerned with gluten content, colleges and universities have had to make accommodations. Some will allow students to be exempted from meal plans, while others will work with students individually. They may need to do even more now as the federal government is watching.

"These kids don't want to be isolated," Bast says. "Part of the college experience is being social. If you can't even eat in the school cafeteria then you are missing out on a big part of college life."

Mary Pat Lohse, the chief of staff and senior adviser to Lesley University's president, says the school has been working with the Justice Department for more than three years to address students' complaints. She says the school has already implemented most parts of the settlement and will continue to update policies to serve students who need gluten-free foods.

"The settlement agreement provides a positive road map for other colleges and universities to follow," Lohse says.

Joan Rector McGlockton of the National Restaurant Association says that restaurants have taken notice of an increasing demand for gluten-free options, "drawing attention to the importance of providing these options as well as the preparation methods involved in serving these options."

The group has a training program for restaurants so they will know what to do when food allergy issues arise.

Whether the government is involved or not, schools and other food service establishments are likely to hear from people who want more gluten-free foods. Dhanu Thiyagarajan, a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh, says she decided to speak up when she arrived at school and lost weight because there were too few gluten-free options available. Like Lesley University, the University of Pittsburgh requires that on-campus students participate in a meal plan.

Thiyagarajan eventually moved off campus so she could cook her own food, but not before starting an organization of students who suffer from wheat allergies like hers. She says she is now working with the food service at the school and they have made a lot of progress, though not enough for her to move back on campus.

L. Scott Lissner, the disability coordinator at Ohio State University, says he has seen similar situations at his school, though people with food allergies have not traditionally thought of themselves as disabled. He says schools will eventually have to do more than just exempt students from a meal plan.

"This is an early decision on a growing wave of needs that universities are going to have to address," he says of the Lesley University agreement.

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Follow Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mcjalonick

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