Some of the stress families with food allergic children experience comes from the social limitations that food safety creates. Needing access to safe food can make enjoying public venues and events an exercise in problem-solving, so staying home is sometimes the least stressful option. Yet, feeling constrained generates mental and emotional distress as well.

Part of the difficulty is that many parks, stadiums, and restaurants do not have safe food options for allergic patrons, and some of these places post signs stating that no outside food can be brought in. This might leave food allergic families on the outside, or only able to participate for short spans of time, were it not for the ADA, or Americans with Disabilities Act. Fortunately for all those affected by a disability, the ADA exists. Unfortunately, its application is sometimes a bit fuzzy.

Carry-In Food and the Law

The ADA guarantees that places of public accommodation (e.g., gyms, theaters, parks, zoos, stadiums, restaurants) will be accessible to everyone. It requires public facilities to make modifications allowing those with a food allergy, or other disability, access—unless modifications cause “undue burden, a fundamental alteration, or a direct threat to health or safety.”

What constitutes an “undue burden,” or “fundamental alteration” requires analyzing the circumstances of each unique situation. However, simple modifications, such as allowing food allergic people to carry in edibles from the outside, are likely required by federal law, even where health codes are involved.

According to the Allergy Law Project (ALP), it’s untrue that health codes, in most cases, prohibit people from bringing food into public facilities. Health codes are typically governed by local and state agencies, but coded safety concerns can usually be met while accommodating food allergic individuals.

When there is a conflict between local rules and federal anti-discrimination regulations, the federal law will prevail most of the time. Since each case needs to be judged on its own merits, local or state laws may occasionally win out.

Practical Tips

The law’s what ifs and exceptions leave allergy affected families on solid ground fraught with bumps and pot holes. However, the ALP offers a couple of helpful ideas for dealing with places that prohibit bringing in safe food:

  1. Try to determine if the facility has concerns other than food safety. They might, for instance, worry about packaging (potential litter) being brought onto their property, or about vendor profits if people are allowed to carry in food. Understanding their reluctance can help people negotiate permission to bring their own fare, or might become part of a legal determination of rights.
  2. Find out if the facility allows other patrons, such as families with infants, to bring their own provisions. If an establishment allows in bottles of milk and jars of baby food, it’s hard to see how they can refuse allergen free carry-ins for allergic individuals.

From a business perspective, most of a venue’s concerns about allowing outside food are legitimate; however, much of the time the law will require these places to permit outside food unless they make other accommodations.

While negotiating with the management of a public facility is not something most of us would relish, it is a chance to spread food allergy awareness, and maybe open the door for other allergy concerned families to enjoy what is offered there.

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