USDA School Lunches - What does the Law Say?

The USDA Child Nutrition Division in charge of school lunches requires public school food service to provide substitute meals for students who cannot eat regular school meals because of their disabilities. 

Children with life-threatening food allergies are considered by law to be disabled, and are thus protected under federal law.  If a school does not comply and provide substitute meals for a disabled child, the school can lose federal funding.

To qualify, the child’s doctor must send in written instructions certifying the child's condition, what foods are to be avoided and safe substitutions. 

The USDA school food service staff guideline document "Accommodating Children with Special Dietary Needs in the School Nutrition Programs" is at  Celiac disease is not mentioned in the document.

Which Laws Protect Food Allergic Kids? 

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504, a Civil Rights Law

The purpose of this civil rights law is “ prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in education or employment in any program or institution receiving federal funds, and to ensure that students with handicaps or disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education.”

Why is food allergy a disability or a handicap?

According to Section 504, a person with a handicap is one who has a physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.  In the case of children with severe food allergies, anaphylaxis is a major impairment, and eating and breathing is a major life activity.  

The ADA, or Americans with Disabilities Act

This act states that, “No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods and services… of any… public accommodation.”

In other words, public accommodations must take such steps to ensure that no individual with a disability is excluded, denied, segregated, or otherwise treated differently than other individuals.

Students cannot be excluded from eating in the cafeteria or eating hot lunch because of food allergies. 

Before School Starts

The USDA requires that substitutions to regular meals must be made for students who cannot eat school meals because of their disabilities.  In order to qualify for meal substitutions, a physician must certify this need in writing.

At the beginning of the school year, parents of food allergic kids are required to submit to the school a form, signed by a physician, stating the foods the child is allergic to and appropriate substitutions.  Once you have submitted this document, provide the food service personnel with a list of all food ingredients to be avoided.

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