For Engineering freshman Hannah Sheetz, Penn’s dining experience has been nothing short of, as she put it, “terrible.”
Sheetz suffers from severe celiac disease, which causes her to become violently ill when she consumes gluten. Unlike many people who avoid gluten for dietary reasons, Sheetz’s disease has made planning her meals a lifetime struggle. Even tiny amounts of gluten, unnoticeable to many, can leave Sheetz feeling extremely sick.
Although her dietary restriction all but prevents her from eating at dining halls, Penn Dining and Student Disability Services have continually refused to refund her meal plan.
According to multiple lawyers interviewed by The Daily Pennsylvanian, her treatment by Penn Dining and SDS may even be in violation of laws protecting students with disabilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act apply to Penn as a private college because it receives federal funding. The laws require Penn to reasonably modify their policies in order to provide “equivalent access” to benefits for disabled students, said Rutgers Law School professor and disability law expert Katie Eyer.
The requirement for “equivalent access” ensures that universities provide equal benefits to students with disabilities.
“One could certainly characterize waiving the requirement of purchasing a meal plan as a reasonable modification of the usual rules to allow her equivalent access,” Eyer said.
For Sheetz, this type of equivalent access does not appear likely.
When dining hall food isn’t for everyone
When Sheetz first arrived at Penn, she was intent on “making the dining halls work,” despite her illness.
She quickly discovered the options labeled gluten-free served at the dining halls still contained gluten. Bon Appétit’s website even states that its gluten-free foods “are not guaranteed gluten-free, as defined by the FDA” because other items in their kitchens are made with gluten.
This excerpt from the Penn Dining website shows that even options labeled "gluten-free" are not FDA certified.
“At the beginning of the year I ate at dining halls about five times and got really sick four of the times,” Sheetz said. “I don’t feel safe eating at the dining halls.”
After Sheetz contacted Penn Dining around Oct. 14 to discuss her situation, she was directed to Dan Connolly, a registered Bon Appétit dietician. Connolly told Sheetz that the only way to provide her with gluten-free food was for her to email the dining halls at the beginning of each week with a schedule telling them exactly where she was going to eat at which times for the entire week, she recalled.
She was unable to do this, citing the amount of time it would take as an undue burden.
Stephen Pennington, director of the Center for Disability Law and Policy in Philadelphia, agreed that Penn’s policy was unreasonable.
“This is completely ridiculous,” he said. “That is like saying to a wheelchair user, ‘The ramp is too high, but let us know when you’re going to show up and we’ll have some big guys come out and help you into the building.’ That’s not a solution for her.”
Connolly deferred comment for this article to a spokeswoman from Penn Business Services, who declined to comment on his behalf due to “privacy issues."
Separately, Penn Business Services declined multiple requests for an in-person interview, but released a written statement outlining their policies in relation to students with dietary restrictions, which said in part, “In most cases, Penn Dining is able to accommodate a student’s special dietary requirements. This is done in a variety of ways including providing education and guidance on available options; adding menu items to our cafes; or even having our chefs prepare meals customized specifically for the student.”
Although the Bon Appétit sign pleads for students to "help [them] prevent cross-contact" by "not allow[ing] foods or equipment from other areas of the café", this communal panini press, which services non-gluten free sandwiches, is located directly next to the gluten-free area in the Hill dining hall. (Julio Sosa | News Photo Editor)
Sheetz recalled being instructed by Connolly in a meeting that she had to make the “dining halls work because they work for other students who are gluten-free,” a directive she couldn’t fathom following.
“Because I have an autoimmune disease and not an allergy, if I keep eating food that is not gluten-free, it can lead to long-term health issues like intestinal cancer,” she said, “so that’s not a risk I can take even though Penn wants me to.”
Jamie Ray-Leonetti, co-chair of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s committee of Legal Rights of Persons with Disability, also thought Penn’s request might raise some legal red flags.
“The University needs to keep in mind that reasonable accommodation is not what we like to call a ‘one size fits all’ process,” she said. “Simply because there are gluten-free options at the dining halls that work for some students does not mean that it is the appropriate accommodation for this student.”
Pennington also criticized the accommodation.
“How are they confident to say that she should be able to tolerate?” he asked. “It’s no different than saying to the wheelchair user, 'That ramp isn’t too steep. You can make it up.’ It’s an opinion without basis in any facts.”
After the meeting with Connolly, Sheetz was still getting sick from the dining hall food. That’s when she decided she needed another option.
Food that would generally be considered "healthy" can be debilitating to those who suffer from celiac disease. (Julio Sosa | News Photo Editor)
In mid-October, she contacted Student Disability Services to see if she could get her meal plan refunded. As part of her request, Sheetz submitted medical forms from her doctor confirming her illness.
“I couldn’t eat anything at the dining halls, so there was no point of having a dining plan,” she said. “My family isn’t rich or anything, so spending $5,000 on a dining plan that I couldn’t use was an insane burden.”
After her parents contacted the office, SDS told them on Jan. 13 that Sheetz’s request had been rejected.
“I was really upset because that meant that I had to spend my own money outside of paying $5,000 for the dining plan to try to get food for myself,” she said. “I’ve begged and screamed and they couldn’t care less.”
Susan Shapiro, the Jesselson Director of Student Disabilities Services, declined to speak specifically on Sheetz’s case, but noted that although it is extremely rare for students to have their dining plans waived, it has happened.
“Students who have special dietary needs are encouraged to meet with a nutritionist and the dining staff of Bon Appétit for the purposes of developing a plan to work best for them,” Shapiro said. “I think that is really important because dining is part of the community there of your peers. That’s part of the college experience to have that community.”
At the 1920 Commons dining hall, students with allergies are instructed to "speak with a manager about any ingredient questions" before consuming any food. (Julio Sosa | News Photo Editor)
After the rejection, Sheetz had to rely on food brought from home, gluten-free snacks like pretzels and pop tarts and the occasional trip to a restaurant.
Pennington was incredulous upon hearing the University’s refusal to refund Sheetz’s plan.
“I’m really surprised. She has individual rights under the ADA,” he said. “To the extent that the food services are not providing her with the same accesses as other students then is in violation of that law, so to say that they don’t believe her is abhorrent to me.”
He added, “She should be permitted to opt out from that meal plan.”
‘Not an adequate solution’
In February, Sheetz contacted Student Disability Services again, this time to see if they could convert her meal swipes into Dining Dollars so she could at least buy gluten-free pretzels at Gourmet Grocer. When Sheetz was interviewed for this article at the end of March, her account did not yet show a conversion.
Only after a follow-up March 20 email from Sheetz’s mother were her swipes finally converted into Dining Dollars.
The conversion didn't totally solve Sheetz’s problem. There aren’t gluten-free meals she can buy with dining dollars, Sheetz said. Instead, she can only purchase snacks like gluten-free pretzels and fruit.
“If you severely limit the categories of food that are available, so that it doesn’t amount to a nutritionally-adequate diet, then that doesn’t seem like a reasonable accommodation,” Eyer said.
A sign in 1920 Commons reads "Waffles- now available at the avoiding gluten station." (Julio Sosa | News Photo Editor)
Complicating matters for students with diseases like Sheetz’s is the dining halls’ insistence on labeling foods as “gluten-free,” when by FDA standards, they are not.
“It’s horrible that they don’t make gluten-free food up to FDA standards, and then don’t let kids out of these meal plans even when they don’t feel safe eating the food,” Sheetz said. “Penn is just trying to make a buck off of me honestly.”
Sheetz could have grounds to file a lawsuit, the lawyers interviewed for this piece said.
“It sounds like she has requested a reasonable accommodation and Penn’s refusal to refund her meal plan definitely raises some legal issues,” Eyer said.
Pennington even recommended that Sheetz file a complaint with the Department of Justice.
“When the Department of Justice calls it tends to make them perk up a little bit, if you know what I mean,” he said. “[Penn] is a good school, but every once in a while they need to be reminded that the students who go there have certain rights.”
While Sheetz’s situation certainly brings up an interesting question for legal scholars, it is much more personal for her.
“It’s really unfair to force students to be in situations where they feel unsafe and are forced to experiment with their health,” she said.
“Everyone else who pays gets to eat meals except me," Sheetz said. "They just want me for my money.”