Pros and Cons of a School 504 Plan for Food Allergies

If your child has severe food allergies, you may want to consider working with your child's school to make sure the school has a comprehensive plan to handle those allergies. These types of plans are called 504 plans, and they're created collaboratively by parents and school authorities to address disabled students' needs in the school system.

504 plans are named for the part of a 1973 federal law that requires school districts to accommodate students with disabilities. The plans cover any condition—physical, mental, or emotional—that might interfere with a student's ability to receive an education in a public school classroom.

Severe food allergies meet that definition since they can interfere with your child's ability to be safe in the classroom.

Portrait of boy, scratching his cheeks
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Benefits of a 504 Plan for Food Allergies

There are numerous potential benefits of establishing 504 plans for students with food allergies. The plans can:

  • Address where life-saving anaphylaxis medications will be stored
  • Detail where students will eat lunches and snacks
  • Determine whether allergens will be permitted on the school campus, and if so, where.
  • Explain how teachers, nurses, and other school personnel will be trained to recognize food allergy symptoms

Plans crafted under the 504 plan umbrella also may help parents teach their children how to manage their own medical conditions, and they can help parents explain to school personnel what their children can and cannot do for themselves with respect to keeping safe from allergens in a school setting.

Which Students Are Eligible?

Not all students with food allergies will be eligible for a 504 plan. In order to be considered eligible for a 504 plan, a student must have a condition that "substantially limits one or more major life activities" (the meaning of this is defined further within the law). In order to determine eligibility, students are evaluated by the school district prior to creating the 504 plan, and if students are denied 504 plan protection, parents have the option to appeal the ruling.

The factors the school district considers in evaluating the student includes the severity of the condition and the student's ability to provide self-care. Thus, a kindergarten student with an anaphylactic peanut allergy who cannot yet read would almost certainly be considered eligible under the terms of the law; a high school student of normal intelligence with a milk allergy whose major symptom is rhinitis likely would not.

Pros and Cons of Creating a 504 Plan

Why go to the trouble of creating a 504 plan when you could just sit down with your child's teacher and principal before the school year starts and come to an informal agreement?

The major difference between a 504 plan and this sort of casual discussion with teachers and administrators at the beginning of each school year is that a 504 plan is a legal document. If the plan is not enforced, parents have legal recourse to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) or to the local courts, depending on the jurisdiction. (As always, an attorney is the best source of answers for specific legal questions.)

Here are the arguments in favor of getting a 504 plan for your child with food allergies:

  • 504 plans can be enforced in court, or with the OCR, giving your child and family a measure of protection you wouldn't have otherwise had.
  • 504 plans can provide clear guidance for handling your child's allergies even after teachers and staff change in your child's school.
  • 504 plans can address your child's food allergy needs beyond the classroom and in a wide variety of situations more informal discussions might not cover. The evaluation process can help clarify situations - fire drills, field trips, etc. - that might have been overlooked in a less formal talk with teachers.
  • Having a written plan and physician authorization may be required in some districts or jurisdictions for students to carry injectable epinephrine on their person.

However, creating a 504 plan can take several months or more and require multiple meetings and evaluations, along with documentation from your child's pediatrician. Some parents decide they'd prefer to work informally with their child's teacher and their school's administration, rather than take the time to work through the formal process of creating a 504 plan. If informal plans later break down, you always can decide to start the 504 process.

Additional Laws

In addition to the Rehabilitation Act, several other laws protect students with food allergies. These include the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The ADA, in particular, may establish some measure of legal protection for students in private schools and daycare centers.

The School Access to Emergency Epinephrine Act of 2013 incentivized states to pass laws that require schools to stock injectable epinephrine, with Good Samaritan laws that can shield from legal liability school personnel who administer epinephrine to anyone they believe in good faith to be having a severe allergic reaction.

Public controversy about peanut bans at schools notwithstanding, legal protections for severe food allergies in schools has been consistently enforced. As the number of students with severe food allergies rises, more and more school districts are reviewing allergy policies or creating new ones.

A Word from Verywell

If your school is reluctant to make changes that you feel are necessary for your child's safety, going through the outside evaluation process and getting a 504 plan may be the best way to protect your child in the classroom.

Even if your relationship with your school has been cordial, having a formal, legally enforceable plan may prevent your relationship with the school from becoming adversarial because expectations for all parties—parents, children, classmates, food services workers, nurses, and administration—should be clear after the 504 plan is completed.

Teachers and school administrators can change and (perhaps) become less accommodating, but if you have a 504 plan in place, you'll know you have recourse.

Ultimately, however, 504 plans are completely optional. Whether you believe your child will benefit from having one is a call that only you can make.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Mustafa SS, Russell AF, Kagan O, et al. Parent perspectives on school food allergy policyBMC Pediatr. 2018;18(1):164. doi:10.1186/s12887-018-1135-6

  2. Office for Civil Rights. The civil rights of students with hidden disabilities under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

By Victoria Groce
Victoria Groce is a medical writer living with celiac disease who specializes in writing about dietary management of food allergies.