Read Between The Labels

By Genie Gunn and Linda Tatsapaugh
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / stillfx

Requests for “special” diets at camp cannot be wished away, since approximately one in every 13 children has a food allergy. As diversity in camp communities continues to increase, many camps will encounter religious or lifestyle choices that may also inform food choices. Food is one of the most personal ways to extend hospitality to campers and guests. Putting systems in place to accommodate a variety of diets can open doors to new people and provide a safe and welcoming place at the camp table.

Reasons For Special Requests
Many requests are medical in nature, such as for food allergies, food intolerances, or part of disease management. For those who do not live with allergies, it may be difficult to empathize. Eight common allergens account for 90 percent of food allergies. By facing menu challenges with only eight ingredients in mind, the staff’s task of medical accommodation becomes more approachable. By eliminating fish, shellfish, and tree nuts from kitchens, there are five ingredients to consider when safely accommodating campers with allergies. Soy, wheat, milk, and eggs are common ingredients in prepared foods, so vigilant attention to ingredient lists becomes an important step in food-allergy management. Peanuts and gluten (a protein from wheat, barley, and other grains) are undoubtedly the most challenging items to consider.

Some requests, however, represent a much broader shift in food preferences. Some camps may be asked to provide vegetarian or vegan choices, to eliminate items for religious beliefs, or to accommodate requests for extremely picky eaters. Some families are choosing a more organic diet while others are committed to a gluten-free, casein-free one for non-medical reasons. What about guests with weight-loss goals who may request limited carbohydrates? These choices, while not potentially life-threatening, like allergies, are also important considerations in “rolling out the red carpet” of hospitality.

Tools For Success
Whether a special request has just arrived or you have been proactively planning to meet potential needs, consideration must be given in determining whether you can truly accommodate a dietary need. Start with the kitchen facilities: Can you provide separate prep areas that will never be contaminated by other areas? If not, you may need to completely eliminate allergen foods from the camp menu. Are you ready to be peanut-free? Similarly, most camps are not set up to have a separate kosher kitchen; it is all or nothing here.

Specialized diets require vigilance and flexibility on the part of the kitchen staff. Is the kitchen manager experienced in individualizing menus? A staff that finds this a bother can cause serious health problems, or in the case of preferences, a customer-service nightmare. Kitchen staff must be educated on how to prepare truly vegetarian dishes that meet dietary needs.

Finally, consider the logistics of such a program. There is an extra cost to many diets with more-expensive substitutes (whether gluten-free bread and soy milk or soynut butter and tofu are used). Some camps may choose to charge extra for a gluten-free and/or dairy-free diet, but charge nothing for vegetarians. Serving procedures in the dining hall may need to be changed since the right meals must be served to the right campers. Does your camp have a philosophy regarding picky eaters? Has a parent asked you to feed her child peanut-butter sandwiches every day, and does that conflict with your belief that all campers sample some homegrown vegetables? How do you manage a campfire marshmallow roast for a child who can’t have sugar?

Team-Of-Five Approach
So how does a camp put this decision into practice? Accommodating a variety of diets is not just the job of the kitchen manager. A “team-of-five” approach to developing a camp’s policies will allow for a number of viewpoints and increase communication (and compliance) across departments. Ideally, the camp director, kitchen manager, nurse, program director, and camp registrar will collaborate in developing the CampFAMP (Food Accommodation Management Plan). For example, if the camp registrar has helped develop the operational plan, he or she will be able to better answer parent questions, proofread marketing materials, and “flag” concerns on camper applications during screening. Program staff with a working knowledge of allergies and other food concerns will better understand their role in planning food for trips, communicating with the kitchen, and preventing cross-contact of food items. Certainly the medical staff and camp director will also be involved in creating and implementing the plan.

Some may have to develop a plan without the five voices. However, thinking through the plan from five viewpoints is possible. Perhaps a short-term volunteer could “put on the glasses” of the program staff member. Parents of campers with allergies would probably be more than happy to review a plan with a team member, and could provide valuable customer-service insight. Those who only have nurses during camp may be able to solicit help from a local clinic.

Follow Through
Once a system is in place, a staff-training plan must be developed to reach counselors, trip leaders, van drivers, and others who may be providing food to campers. Be sure that a system is translated into written policies so it can be carried out the same way every year. And it is best if there is a “nutrition champion” (often the kitchen manager or the nurse) on-campus who is passionate about keeping everyone informed.

Once you have agreed to meet a special dietary request, it is crucial to keep it fun, and never make a camper feel different or like he or she is a burden to staff members. Search the internet for delicious substitutes that are similar to camp dishes. Serve trays with a flourish. Counselors should be low-key about special needs, and celebrate when the picky eater likes a new food. The kitchen manager is a key to this; if he or she sets a tone in the kitchen of great customer service, the rest of the staff will generally follow suit.

Never over-promise about meeting special dietary needs or preferences. Make sure the entire team is ready and able to completely meet the need before agreeing to it. But once you have shown this high level of customer service, your reputation is likely to grow as a welcoming camp for many kids who otherwise could not attend.


Food Allergy Initiative
Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network
With downloads, including “How To Read A Label”

Genie Gunn is an ACA SE Standards Co-Chair, former camp director, and culinarian. Reach her at .

Linda Tatsapaugh is a former special-needs camp director (Talisman Programs). Reach her at .