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Navigating The School System


Most children with special dietary needs tend to bring their own snacks and lunch to school to ensure that the food they eat is safe. This is a good thing! As a parent, you can teach your child how to pack a nutritious and delicious gluten-free lunch. This empowers your child how to manage his or her own autoimmune disease. For many reasons, such as financial need or social inclusion, it might be more appropriate for your child to receive a school lunch – at least sometimes.  


Many school districts and individual schools’ foodservice programs voluntarily accommodate children on special diets. Others request medical proof of diagnosis and must implement specific protocols to reach the same level of accommodation. Parents often find out which option they must pursue early in the exploratory process.

If you would like to approach your school district about serving gluten-free meals in the cafeteria, suggest that the school nutrition director or manager complete NFCA's GREAT Schools, Colleges, and Camps program. This course teaches school nutrition personnel the essentials of preparing and serving gluten-free meals for students and staff with gluten-related disorders. It addresses every step from sourcing ingredients to avoiding cross-contact. GREAT programs are listed in the USDA database for Professional Standards for School Nutrition Professionals.


As a parent, it is very important to understand what the federal government requires participating school districts to do to accommodate children with food allergies and intolerances. Decisions are based on individual circumstances: there is no blanket statement that can be made for all children with celiac disease. An accommodation is neither an entitlement nor a requirement. If schools do make accommodations, the gluten-free substitution does not need to be identical to that of the non-gluten-free option.

Americans with Disabilities Act

This 1990 legislation created new rights and extends existing rights for Americans with disabilities. Title II of the Act is especially significant for school nutrition programs, as it requires equal availability and accessibility in State and local government programs and services, including public schools. The United States Department of Agriculture Food and Agriculture (USDA) Child Nutrition Division oversees school lunch programs and requires public school systems to provide substitutions for qualified disabled students whose disability restricts their diet. Substitutions are permitted for other students who are not disabled but are unable to consume the regular school lunch due to special dietary needs. One model required by many school systems is to set up a 504 plan which formalizes necessary accommodations.

What is a 504 Plan?

In 1973 Congress passed Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of physical or mental disability. Section 504 says that “No otherwise qualified individual with handicaps … shall, solely by reason of her or his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…”

To be protected under the 504 Plan the student must have a disability as defined as:

  1. has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  2. has a record of such an impairment
  3. is regarded as having such an impairment.

Simply put, the 504 Plan insures that students with disabilities are afforded a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) to qualified students with disabilities.  

Download NFCA's Back to School Toolkit to learn more about accommodations for gluten-free students, including an overview of the 504 Plan and a 504 Plan Roadmap.

What is a Physical Impairment?
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a person with a disability is defined as, “Any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory (including speech organs), cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, hematic and lymphatic, skin, and endocrine."

There is no list of disease or conditions that will be considered because the list is too extensive and everyone with the same condition may not have the same impairment. Historically, people with food allergies and intolerances have been accepted to have a “hidden disability.”

Celiac disease by itself does not qualify a student for services. The illness must cause a substantial limitation on the child’s ability to learn or other major life activity, but the illness combined with other factors may. Each candidate pursuing a 504 Plan must make an individualized argument for why he or she should qualify and why lack of accommodation would be detrimental to their education (be it academic, social, emotional, cultural, or physical). A multi-disciplinary team gathers to review relevant information from a variety of sources: teacher’s notes, child’s achievement tests or physical condition, social and cultural background, physician’s report, etc. All contributed information must be documented and relevant information to the child’s learning process must be considered. If a parent disagrees with the findings of the school district then the parent may request a due process hearing.

*Examples of information considered by multi-disciplinary team:

  • Year of celiac diagnosis and time on special diet
  • Written statement from physician stating child has a celiac diagnosis
  • Written statement how celiac disability affects major life activity
  • Written statement from educator or health professional indicating social or emotional impact of food restriction

* Remember: the ultimate impact must be to the child’s education.


Going off to college can be a difficult and challenging transition for teens and parents. Depending on the institution and living arrangements, students may be required to eat meals in the dining halls and purchase meal plans. Some campus dorms may not allow cooking equipment or have kitchens where students can prepare their own meals. For some students, new challenges may include selecting safe food options, handling social and dining experiences, and advocating for themselves when it comes to requesting safe gluten-free food. Also, students must self-identify that they have celiac disease and relay their need for a gluten-free diet to campus dining services, the school dietitian, or advocacy support organizations such as Student Disability Services. 

The U.S. Department of Education, Civil Rights division has issued a helpful guide to aid in the transition for high school to college. Transition of Students with Disabilities to Postsecondary Education: A Guide for High School Educators

US Department of Justice vs. Lesley University Agreement

On December 20, 2012, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it had reached an agreement with Lesley University in response to a complaint surrounding the lack of gluten-free and food allergy options on campus with no opportunity for meal plan exemption. 

The agreement stemmed from a complaint that Lesley University was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), preventing students with special dietary needs from "fully and equally" enjoying services provided by the university.  Following an investigation, the DOJ and Lesley University entered voluntarily into an agreement that would ensure "reasonable modifications" are made to address the needs of gluten and allergen-free students.  While the settlement only applies to Lesley University, it lays out a set of guidelines that outline how one school chose to accommodate their documented gluten-free students. It provides a roadmap for gluten and allergen-free accommodations that other institutions can follow. 


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