By Lauren Lavelle
Rider reached an agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s office on Feb. 21 to offer more food options for students with celiac disease after federal investigators accused them of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
According to a statement released by the Attorney’s Office, the issue came about after a former Rider student filed a complaint stating Rider “did not provide reasonable modifications to its policies, practices and procedures regarding its dining program” for those with celiac disease, an immune disease that prevents the digestion of gluten found in many grain and wheat products.
“The ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities by public accommodations, including colleges and universities,” the statement said. “The ADA requires colleges and universities to reasonably modify their policies, practices or procedures when necessary to avoid disability discrimination, unless such entities can demonstrate that the modifications being sought would fundamentally alter the nature of the goods and services of the university.”
The settlement requires that Rider accommodate students with celiac disease by providing allergen-free food preparation areas, a food dietician and a “pre-order” system for students with food allergies.
“We commend Rider on working to ensure that its students with severe food allergies have options that meet their needs,” U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito said in the statement. “This agreement will improve the experience of students with food allergy-related disabilities and help them to focus on getting an education.”
Kristine Brown, associate vice president of university marketing and communications, said the changes to Rider’s food services were welcome and necessary for students.
“Rider is committed to ensuring the dietary needs of our students with disabilities, including those who are gluten-free or have food allergies,” Brown said. “In addition to fully cooperating with the U.S. Attorney’s office to develop and amend our policies and practices to ensure students with disabilities can equally access safe dining options, we have taken even further steps to improve our overall dining experience.”
Those steps include a food preparation station located in Daly Dining Hall that serves food free of peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, milk, eggs, wheat, soy and gluten.
“This kitchen was built to meet the needs of students with allergies and to improve their student experience,” Brown said.
Shannon McGinty, a sophomore psychology major, was diagnosed with celiac disease during her senior year of high school. Before fully committing to Rider, McGinty and her parents met with representatives from Rider’s food services to discuss food options and meal plans.
“They talked about how accommodating [Rider] was,” McGinty said. “They said there were gluten-free options at every meal and I could call ahead and ask the staff for gluten-free food. They also mentioned the gluten-free fridge.”
After starting her freshman year at Rider though, McGinty noticed there weren’t as many gluten-free options as she was promised.
“There were no gluten-free options in Daly Dining Hall aside from the gluten-free fridge which was open for everyone to take stuff from,” McGinty said. “There was only bagels, bread and cookies in it. They did have gluten-free pasta at the pasta station, but they didn’t have it all the time.”
While McGinty was happy when she heard about the allergen-free food preparation station, she said the station was not ready until the end of October, forcing her to rely on what Daly Dining Hall had in its gluten-free fridge again.
“I wound up eating a lot of gluten or salads for the majority of the semester because I couldn’t live off of the bread and the dairy-free yogurts in the gluten-free fridge,” she said. “I almost asked for a refund on my meal plan last semester because I was eating out so much due to the lack of options.”
Although McGinty no longer has a meal plan on campus, she said she commends the former student who decided to take the matter to the Attorney’s Office.
“I think it’s really great someone did something about this because it was so bad,” McGinty said.