By State Representative Jason Chipman, Republican from Steelville
For the more than 32 million Americans dealing with food allergies, and the many more suffering with sensitivities to different food items, it has become a critical daily function to plan and manage their diets to prevent catastrophic reactions to allergens. And while the world has been quick to adapt in many ways to provide allergen-free food options, there are still many areas where efforts to protect folks with food allergies have lagged behind. One area I have worked to address during my time in the legislature is the way our public universities accommodate students with food allergies.
For those who aren’t aware, accommodations for individuals with food allergies are typically covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 2012, a settlement with Lesley University ensured that students with food allergies and celiac disease could fully access the university’s meal plans and food services. A similar settlement in 2018 with Rider University reinforced the Lesley case by requiring the school to accommodate students with food allergy-related disabilities and to provide allergen-free food preparation areas in its dining facilities. In both cases a clear warning was sent to schools across the country that they must do more to ensure students with food allergies can eat safely in campus dining halls.
While this is good news for the many young people with food allergies who go off to college each year, it’s also a reminder that many institutions of higher learning have not been proactive in addressing this growing public health concern. Many schools have been slow to take the necessary steps to ensure all students have a safe, healthy dining experience. At the same time, these schools have continued to require students to pay for meal plans even when these plans do not include meal options that can be safely consumed by students with serious food allergies.
To address this issue, in 2018 I was able to add an amendment to HB 1744 that ultimately became law. This simple change to our statute states that students do not have to purchase a meal plan if they present a doctor’s note for a food allergy or other medical dietary issue. Keep in mind, this is optional. A student with food allergies has the right to purchase a meal plan if they choose to do so. This simply states that a university cannot make a student with allergies pay for the plan. Even with universities that provide alternative meal plans or make special accommodations for those with allergies, the student still has the option to opt out of paying for the plan.
I worked to pass this change into law because I believe it’s important to protect the health and well-being of our young people, and also because I think it makes no sense to charge students for a service they may not be able to safely utilize. People with food allergies and sensitivities become very adept at navigating the challenges associated with preparing or finding safe meal options. If they are uncomfortable with the thought of relying on a campus dining service to protect them from dangerous allergens, I think it only makes sense to allow them to handle their own choices so they can ensure their physical and mental well-being.
As someone who lives with serious food allergies, and who has children who do as well, I know how difficult and stressful it can be to manage my family’s safety when eating meals we haven’t prepared on our own. It’s difficult to have trust in the fact the food you are being served is free of allergens or has not been cross-contaminated in some way. For the many students with food allergies who attend our public universities, I know you and your families have similar concerns. Please know the power to protect your own health is in your hands. You know best how to manage your dietary needs and I encourage you to do so.