A February 2019 settlement reached between Rider University and the United States reaffirms that properly accommodating students with celiac disease, serious food allergies, or other food-related disabilities is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This case should make colleges and universities reassess how well they are meeting the needs of these students.
“The ADA defines ‘disability’ to include any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, such as eating, or a major bodily function, including the digestive system” according to the settlement. The terms of the Rider University settlement are consistent with those reached in the 2012 Lesley University settlement. Students with food-related disabilities may reasonably suggest to their schools that they are entitled to similar accommodations for their dietary restrictions.
The government was represented by U.S. Attorney Daniel Meyler and Michael Campion, chief of the Civil Rights Unit, of the U.S. Attorney’s Civil Division in Newark. A detailed complaint by a Rider student with celiac disease was received in July 2016. After an independent investigation, the US determined that Rider’s “policies and practices” did not comply with Title III of the ADA, and that there was no adequate plan to enable these students to fully enjoy Rider’s meal plans and food service. Rider had “improperly delegated responsibility for accommodating students with food-related disabilities to the service vendor".
“We commend Rider University on working to ensure that its students with severe food allergies have options that meet their needs,” US Attorney Craig Carpenito said in the press release. “This agreement will improve the experience of students with food allergy-related disabilities and help them to focus on getting an education.”
Rider disputes that it has violated the ADA but per the agreement decided “it is in its best interests to amicably resolve the investigation” without admitting liability, and has agreed to do the following:
CREATE STUDENT DISABILITIES SERVICES FUNCTION
Rider is required to name a person responsible for registering students with food-related disabilities and ensuring each is properly accommodated. The school’s website now directs students to Dr. Barbara Blandford, Director, Student Accessibility and Support Services (SSD). The settlement specifies that SSD will work together with the student to create a documented individualized plan, allowing updates as needed, and advocate for the student with the food service vendor to ensure requests are addressed. Reasonable accommodations must be provided, and a timely appeal process put in place. SSD must also allow students to be exempt from the mandatory meal plan. Appropriate communications to ensure awareness of this function among current and new students is specified in the agreement. Rider will make sure that any modification plan “is provided in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of the individual with the disability".
ADAPT DINING SERVICES
All registered eligible students will have the option to eat from the lines or to pre-order lunch and dinner meals. There will be a new full-time dietitian, designated safe food preparation areas, and good options available across campus.
Detailed actions include:
Label Allergens and Avoid Cross-Contamination: Notices will be posted in each dining hall in a 40-point font with food allergen warnings, and will identify the person in that location qualified to answer food-allergy related questions. Foods that are made without allergens will be labeled, nutritionally comparable to standard options, and prepared with proper protocols to reduce cross-contamination risk.
Provide Pre-Ordering Service: Students will be able to review online menu items and email preferred daily lunch and dinner options (at least) 24 hours in advance and have these meals, or reasonable substitutes, delivered to their dining hall of choice. These meals will be prepared in a designated allergen-free zone and delivered to dedicated spaces to avoid cross-contamination.
Designate Safe Food Prep Area: An Allergen Awareness Food Preparation area will be staffed by a dedicated chef and consist of a separate kitchen and food prep area with glass walls, counter, fridge, freezer, cooking pots and utensils, as well as a food warmer for pre-ordered meals. This area will be free of top 8 allergens: milk, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, wheat, soy, and fish. Reasonable steps will be taken to avoid cross-contamination. Students can provide written requests for allergen-free items and reasonable efforts will be made to purchase and maintain these items or reasonable substitutes. In Daly’s Hall, Cranberries and Westminster Commons, Rider will continue to provide a separate area with a refrigerator, freezer, cabinet space, separate microwave, and toaster dedicated to gluten-free items.
Employ Full Time Dietitian and Establish a Teaching Kitchen: The food service vendor will employ a full-time dietitian under Rider’s oversight, to help these students develop diets or meal plans. One dining hall will host a teaching kitchen, used for food allergy food prep education, programming and cooking demos.
Spread Safe Food Availability Campus-Wide: Online menus will provide weekly meal options that are allergen friendly. Food made without allergens will be made available at all locations that accept Rider's student currency, “Bronc Bucks”. Information will be made available online advising students that the University will provide food options for students with food-related disabilities in the dining halls and food eateries controlled by the university.
Dining Training: A detailed training plan for all food service managers and staff is outlined, including some specific courses and timing (e.g. before each fall and spring semester), and the United States will be provided with proof of training completion. Training includes instruction on celiac disease and food allergies, procedures for avoiding cross-contamination in food storage and preparation, handling student questions, communicating with SSD, and monthly staff meetings focused on allergy awareness and food safety.
ADA TRAINING FOR RIDER
All Rider’s employees and contractors in Residents Life and SSD who have contact with students and families will undergo educational training focused on its obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and provide proof of completion to the United States.
The school website must make it easy to find the information for requesting accommodations due to a food restriction, including opting out of mandatory meal plans. The policy will be physically posted in the SSD office, dining facilities, and emailed to all students. Detailed communication requirements are specified in the settlement.
What does the Rider settlement mean for the celiac community?
This is the second university settlement determining that accommodating students with celiac disease and other food-related disabilities is covered under the ADA. Yet there is much work to be done to increase awareness and bring about change!
Like Rider, many colleges are operating under the false assumption that they have outsourced this responsibility to their food service vendor. We encourage parents and students to help enlighten their schools on the Rider and Lesley settlements. Some schools may respond favorably to this input and others may only respond to legal action. Food service vendors have the products and training to meet these dietary needs, but only when colleges take ownership and demand them.
Our Celiac College Student Surveys show that there is tremendous inconsistency in managing dietary needs even among schools that use the same food service vendor. By undertaking an honest assessment of current offerings and learning from successful programs, schools can take incremental steps forward. Hiring a dietitian to lead the charge, and starting with a few top-8-allergen free stations, could be an example of a first step. All schools must find a way to be ADA compliant, even if solutions vary.
There is a recognized marketing advantage when schools go beyond the basics to genuinely making these students feel safe and comfortable with their dining options. Leaders in this area have taken steps similar to those required in this settlement. They employ and empower a dietitian, engage student disabilities services, educate dining leadership, and maintain continuous training. Structural changes, like providing the allergen-free food prep areas and limiting who handles allergen-free foods, reduces cross-contamination risk. Many opt for top-8-allergen free stations, and a few have eliminated nuts and gluten from entire dining halls.
When students with celiac disease join together with those with other food restrictions they can make a larger impact on their campus and bring about real change. Creating food allergy awareness clubs to advocate and provide feedback can be very effective. Current or recent college graduates with celiac disease, please also complete our Celiac College Student Survey to increase transparency and share experiences with the larger celiac community.
Thank you U.S. Attorney Daniel Meyler, Michael Campion, and your team for taking on this complaint and protecting the rights of students with celiac disease, food allergies and other food-related disabilities!
How well does your school meet the gluten-free challenge? Current or recent college graduates with celiac disease, please complete our Celiac College Student Survey!
Individuals who believe they may have been victims of discrimination may file a complaint with the U.S Attorney’s Office at http://www.justice.gov/usao-nj/civil-rights-enforcement/complaint or call the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s Civil Rights Complaint Hotline at (855) 281-3339. Additional information about the ADA can be found at www.ada.gov, or by calling the Department of Justice’s toll-free information line at (800) 514-0301 and (800) 514-0383 (TDD).