Civil Rights Advocacy

USDA Guidelines for Accommodating Children with Special Dietary Needs in School Nutrition Programs 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines govern how school districts that participate in the USDA School Nutrition Program accommodate children with special dietary needs.

USDA Regulation 7 CFR Part 15b requires schools to provide substitutions or modifications to school meals when a student’s disability limits or restricts his or her diet. Such special meals must be provided at no additional costs to a student whose disability restricts his or her diet. A physician’s statement supporting the student’s need for substitutions must be provided to the school. The physician’s statement must contain: the student’s disability, an explanation of why the student’s disability restricts his or her diet, major life activities affected by the student’s disability, and the food(s) that must be omitted from the student’s diet and the foods or choice of foods that must be substituted. 

These guidelines recognize “food anaphylaxis (severe food allergy)” as a physical or mental impairment that could limit a major life activity and would thus be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. (This position taken by USDA differs from the commonly held knowledge in the food allergy community that there is no reliable way to pre-determine the severity of a food-allergic reaction). The current guidelines state that for a food allergy to be determined a “disability” that would require the school to offer the food-allergic student special meals, a licensed physician’s determination that the food allergy may result in life-threatening (anaphylactic) reaction is required. Without such a physician’s assessment, under the current guidelines, food allergies that do not cause life-threatening (anaphylactic) reactions would be considered a special dietary need that a school may accommodate, at its discretion. A school is to make determinations on these permissive accommodations on a case-by-case basis.

For a school to be required to provide a special diet for a student with food allergies, a physician’s statement must specify that the student has severe food allergies, that exposure to the allergen or eating the allergen may cause the student to experience a life-threatening reaction, and that the student’s food allergies limits specified major life activities (usually eating, breathing, and/or the process of digestion). The physician’s statement must also list the foods that must be avoided and any required substitutions (such as elemental formula).

The guidelines are currently being revised because they have not been updated since 2001. Given how dated the information is in the guidelines, they do not reflect the changes to disability laws that have occurred since 2001, including the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008, under which the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, and the U.S. Department of Justice determined that food allergies may be deemed a disability which would require accommodation when the food allergy limits a major life activity, such as eating, breathing, and the process of digestion.


USDA Guidelines for Accommodating Children with Special Dietary Needs in School Nutrition Programs