The Lunchtime Dilemma:
Accommodating Disabilities and Food Allergies in the National School Lunch Program
by Jacqueline C. Lembeck, Esq.
For a child with a food allergy or dietary restriction, the school cafeteria may be a challenging place to navigate. While his or her peers only have to think about which table to choose, a child with food allergies has to consider the ingredients in the school lunch and where and how it was prepared. For the child’s parent, it may seem that packing lunch is the only safe option. What is more, a child’s dietary restriction may make families feel as if they cannot rely on free and reduced-price school lunches. However, when food allergies or dietary restrictions constitute a disability, schools must make accommodations to provide school lunches which are safe for the child.
The National School Lunch Program requires that schools make substitutions for students with disabilities which restrict their diet. Schools must make substitutions on a “case by case basis only when supported by a written statement of the need for substitution(s) that includes recommended alternate foods . . . signed by a licensed physician.” 7 C.F.R. § 210.10(m)(1). Regulations governing school lunch programs define disability using the definition also used in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act covering any person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. 7 C.F.R. 15b.3.
It is important note that accommodating children with disabilities does not end at substituting alternate foods. For example, schools may have to alter the texture of foods for children with disabilities, depending on the child’s needs. In addition, a school that does not normally serve breakfast or snacks, may have to serve breakfast at school or snacks at school for a child whose disability requires it.
If your child’s disability requires a substitution or alteration in the school lunch, you should obtain a physician’s statement which clearly states the nature of your child’s disability and how it restricts your child’s diet, the major life activity affected by the disability, and the specific substitutions or accommodations which are necessary. It is a good idea to have a document outlining the need and the substitution that will be made so you and the School District are on the same page and can refer back or amend the substitutions as necessary.
Schools may, but do not have to, make substitutions for students without disabilities who have a medical or dietary need. Substitutions for children who do not have a disability which affects diet are discretionary and made on a case by case basis when supported by a written statement signed by a recognized medical authority. 7 C.F.R. § 210.10(m)(2). Because most food allergies or dietary restrictions are not so severe as to cause an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, schools generally may decide whether to make a substitution. Severe or life-threatening food allergies, on the other hand, likely are disabilities which must be accommodated. Finally, just because a child has a disability, does not mean that the disability affects her/her diet. Therefore, a school is not required to make substitutions for unrelated disabilities which do not impact the child’s ability to have school lunch.
A few common issues parents face include:
Severe Nut Allergies:
According to guidance from the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service:
The school has the responsibility to provide a safe, non-allergic meal to the child if it is determined that the condition is disabling. To do so, school food service staff must make sure that all food items offered to the allergic child meet prescribed guidelines and are free of foods which are suspected of causing the allergic reaction. This means that the food labels or specifications will need to be checked to ensure that they do not contain traces of such substances. In some cases, the labels will provide enough information to make a reasonable judgment possible. If they do not provide enough information, it is the responsibility of the school food service to obtain the necessary information to ensure that no allergic substances are present in the foods served.
If gluten intolerance and/or celiac disease—a condition marked by an immune response to gluten which damages the small intestine—rises to the level of a disability, meaning it causes a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities, then a substitution is required by the regulations.
Vegetarian or Vegan:
Schools are not required to make substitutions for children who are vegetarian or vegan when the dietary restriction is due to choice and not because of a disability.
Overall, if your child suffers from a disability and needs accommodation in school lunch, talk to your doctor and school to ensure that the proper substitutions are made. No brown bag required.