Established in 1946 by President Harry S. Truman, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) exists to provide free and low-cost meals to students attending public or non-profit private schools and residential daycare facilities. The NSLP is run by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and sets a list of nutritional requirements that must be met for each lunch served. In practice though, this program is administered by agencies in each state and it looks a little different depending on where you live.

Students are able to qualify for the NSLP in many ways, such as their status in a Federal Assistance Program or based on their household’s income and family size. Already in its first year, 7 million children benefited from this program and it has only grown in the years since. According to the most recent data, approximately 30 million participated in the National School Lunch Program in 2016 alone. Now that’s a lot of food!
For more information, check out this fact sheet.

Food Allergies + School Lunch

The National School Lunch Program must follow federal nutritional guidelines and accommodations under the ADA.

But enough general information, let’s talk about where food allergies fit in. Here are the exact words from the USDA’s document entitled: Accommodating Children with Special Dietary Needs in the School Meal Programs (2017), which you can read in full here.

“When accommodating a child’s food allergy, no food item offered to the child may contain traces of substances that may trigger an allergic reaction. For example, if a child has a peanut allergy, no foods served to the child may contain peanuts or include peanuts as an ingredient. This means food labels or specifications on food items children with allergies will consume must be checked for allergens. If a food label for a product served in the Programs does not provide adequate information, it is the responsibility of the school food service to obtain the information necessary to ensure no allergic substances are present.”

Okay, let’s break that down. Essentially what this says is that the school lunch provider must ensure that all ingredients provided to a food-allergic student are free-from any potential allergens. That means providers must thoroughly read labels and do any necessary background research, including contacting manufacturers, to get the full story behind the product. If a meal is found to contain an allergen, then it is the school’s responsibility to find a replacement, however, this replacement meal is not required to mirror the mainstream serving of the day.

Furthermore, any severity level of allergic reaction is to be accommodated under this regulation:

“Please note that children’s symptoms may not always be overt or visible. School officials should be attentive to children’s complaints of physical discomfort, faintness, or other symptoms which may signal an allergic reaction.” 

The school is still within its rights to request a medical statement from a licensed professional detailing the student’s food allergy and requested accommodations therefore. Read more about that here on page 6.

What does this mean?

Schools are required to accommodate all levels of food allergy at lunch because this is widely interpreted as a disability which is protected by law from discrimination.

Schools are now required to accommodate all levels of food allergy because this is widely interpreted as a disability which is protected by law from discrimination (think: being charged more for food substitutions). This stems from the amendment to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 2008 which loosened the requirements to prove a disability. That means that instead of spending time proving that a food allergy is a condition that severely impacts quality of daily life (something most anyone with a food allergy could tell you), the USDA recommends using that time to ensure that the student is provided with safe, healthy food in the NSLP. Historically speaking, this is a HUGE leap in the right direction.

Let me explain…

Just 16 years prior, the same document, the Guidance for Accommodating Children with Disabilities in the School Lunch Program, was published in 2001 stating that if your food allergy was not life threatening (aka did not result in anaphylaxis) then the school lunch provider was not legally required to avoid allergens when preparing your food. That meant that less severe allergic reactions were neither protected by law nor accommodated for in the NSLP.

Why is that? Because in 2001, the USDA followed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which does not state which disabilities explicitly are protected by the act (meaning not to be discriminated against in federal programs). That left a lot of room open for interpretation, which could be both a good and bad thing. In many cases, it had been interpreted to include food allergies, as food allergen avoidance can very much be something that “substantially limits one or more major life activities” (read: every social meal or gathering). However, if your food allergy or intolerance was not “severe enough” it could have been equally interpreted as not a disability, therefore removing legal protection for accommodations in programs such as the National School Lunch Program.

Let’s put that into perspective.

Kaytlyn is a 16 year old from Kansas who is in the 11th grade. She also is a member of Food Equality Initiative’s Teen Advisory Board. 

It is hard for kids to be kids when they have to worry about what they eat.

At 4 years old, Kaytlyn was diagnosed with a severe allergy to tree nuts, which has gotten more severe over the years. Her allergy to tree nuts is life-threatening and is therefore protected by the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and the NSLP. That means meals provided to her during school hours must be free of tree nuts in all shapes and sizes, or else there could be grounds for legal repercussions.

However, Kaytlyn also suffers from a more mild allergy to sesame, which was not accommodated for in 2011, when she was in first grade. One time at lunch, she had some sesame seeds on a bun. After lunch, she went to recess to play, but she found herself having another type of reaction. “I don’t know how to explain the feeling. It was like heartburn almost, but really painful. It hurt all up and down my back, and I remember it being really traumatic.” Her friends wanted to talk with her but she remembers that talking hurt, swallowing hurt, even moving hurt. She was trying her best not to vomit, focusing herself on the simple task of breathing in and out. She was afraid to go to the teacher because she did not want to cause anyone anxiety, and she did not want to tell her friends for fear of being ostracized, so she sat alone. 

Even though in 2020 all her food allergies and sensitivities are classified as disabilities by the APA and the NSLP, Kaytlyn still has thoughts about how schools could do better: “I feel like schools still don’t give the attention to allergies that they need and I feel that students will be judged by others if you puke in class etc. (a typical symptom of an allergic reaction). They need to address the stigma about having allergies in school and help reduce judgement by other students in the classroom.”

What can we do?

Food Equality Initiative is dedicated to advocating for those who have food allergies, intolerances, and Celiac disease. We agree with Kaytlyn. You can read about how we have taken action and how we will continue to make change here. The USDA has also issued suggested guidelines for how schools can be more proactive in countering bullying, which you can read here in Appendix C.

This week, during National School Lunch Week, we encourage you to speak up and contact your local officials about the issue of food allergies in school. Tell your story about what living with food allergies entails, whether that is your direct experience or witness to someone you care for. Educate yourself about your rights to make sure you are being provided for, wherever you are.
You can find the contacts for administrators of the NSLP in your state here.

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