Avoiding Allergic Reactions

By Sonia Schonning
Photos Courtesy of Camp Wingate*Kirkland

Do you have a food allergy? Statistically, one out of 12 children has a life-threatening food allergy. In a camp with 500 campers, 41children will potentially have dietary needs that demand changes to daily menus. Are you prepared?

Once upon a time, epinephrine pens were used only to combat bee stings. Now, camp chefs and dining-hall staffs have to contend with food allergens, including peanuts, tree nuts, pine nuts, gluten, dairy, eggs, fruit, soy, fish, red dye, and others so obscure that camp meals have become a culinary mine field.

Sandy and Will Rubenstein, owners and directors of CampWingate*Kirkland on Cape Cod, Mass., made a conscious decision in 2006 to turn the camp into a completely nut-free environment. “We want kids to be kids and put worries aside,” says Sandy. “At school, a child may be easily identified, but here, a child is a camper, not the camper with allergies.” Head Chef Tom Stark agrees. “While I’m not a dietician, I am a Dad, and that emotional connection makes me go the distance to ensure safety.”

Eight years later, Chef T. and his staff seamlessly handle any food allergy. And while providing a fine dining experience, he especially enjoys the challenge of creating healthy and delicious meals that safely appeal to all palettes.

Involving All Staff Members
“You have to have a plan because there is no margin for error,” says Chef. “Each season our nursing staff provides a list of campers with food allergies. We then separate the allergies into categories and create a chart.” Some of the veteran dining staff members also work in schools, so they understand the hazards of cross contamination, as well as substitution and preparation. The staff then meets to discuss each food allergy in detail, including the range of possible reactions and emergency procedures.

Prior to the start of camp, the entire W*K staff takes part in allergen awareness and Epi-pen training. In the event of an emergency, the nearest hospital is within 5 minutes of the camp. To date, CampW*K remains food allergy reaction-free.

Initial obstacles were abundant. According to Chef T., “It was a retraining of the brain. No longer was it simply making great tasting food. Each ingredient of every menu item had to be checked, as well as the ever-changing food labels. The first step was becoming nut-free. Fortunately, we make most meals from scratch, but we order some packaged snacks and mixes. We had to ensure that whatever we ordered was produced in a nut-free facility--if we were in doubt, a call was placed to the facility. We needed to find a substitute for peanut butter that would still offer the same taste. We no longer use hamburger buns with allergy-inducing sesame seeds. We now cook with gluten-free flour and other allergy-friendly ingredients. Nothing is taken for granted.”

Methodical steps ensure that there is no cross-contamination of food in the kitchen of the dining hall. In addition to formal training for the staff, pots and pans, as well as plates and silverware, are now separated, and there is a dedicated oven. The sanitized dishwasher also cleans dishes separately. Gloves are changed at any hint of possible cross-contamination. “While it’s now second nature for us to make sure our gloved hands do not come into contact with potential food allergens during food preparation, distribution, and clean up,” says Chef T., “it was a process. We monitored each other then and now to make sure we don’t wipe our gloved hand on our apron, or pick up a utensil, eliminating the possibility of cross-contamination.”

Establishing Trust
Chef T. makes it a personal mission to form a bond with each camper, and while he recognizes campers by name, he meets privately with food-allergic campers. “Many of them are timid. I get them to relax by engaging them in conversation and finding a connection. This is a partnership built on trust. Some kids are very aware and ask to read labels. Once they realize that we do care and understand, they relax and forget about the allergies and become campers. That’s the goal. We want them to feel the same freedom from fear that they have at home.”

Letters are sent home to bunk families informing them of food-allergy policies, and every package sent from home is monitored. If peanut or allergen-producing products are in the food, campers switch out the offending item with a safe nut-free trade from the office Bunk Trunk. The confiscated candy is then given to the local food bank.

Preparing A Worry-Free Environment
It is imperative that campers with food allergies do not feel self-conscious at meal times. Will says, “This is a time for bonding with friends and bunkmates, and we want the burden of worry to be on us, not the camper.” Chef T. and his staff strive to make every meal look the same, yet safe for all. Fruit displays in common areas of the dining hall are free of whatever fruit allergies exist. “If we’re having meatballs,” says Chef, “we may have four versions, each absent of offending ingredients, but to the campers, the meatballs look and taste the same. All campers come through the regular food line, but the staff knows who needs which plate, and that established bond of trust is at work.”

When campers venture off-site, an added layer of caution is necessary. Camp rules apply and Epi-pens are packed. The same diligence shown in the dining hall and at a camper’s home continues. Individually wrapped sandwiches are labeled and kept separate. Counselors, in partnership with campers, purposefully choose food venues carefully. “If they go to get ice cream,” says Sandy, “they are careful to pick an establishment that knows and understands food allergies.”

Chef T. knows that the quality of the meal influences the outcome of the day. “Our days are full of activity, and everyone looks forward to meals. If they walk away happy, safe, and satisfied, we’ve done our job. You have to be prepared!”

Chef T.’s Recommendations For Camps:

1. Do the research! Learn how to switch out ingredients without compromising taste.
2. Know the food vendors and confirm that their products are made in a nut-free facility.
3. Be completely invested in accommodating food allergies. There is no margin for error.
4. Be diligent in monitoring everyone’s roles in kitchen routines.
5. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Find out what families do at home, and emulate these procedures when possible.
6. Differentiate between the “cant’s” and the “wont’s.” Some campers don’t like certain foods vs.  while others have a potentially life-threatening allergy. Work with the health office.
7. Avoid buying salad mixes with carrots, and/or check for cross-contamination involving pre-packaged ingredients.
8. Make meals in stages, leaving out (and adding or replacing) ingredients as the food is cooked. Examples: Stir fry and meatballs.
9. Partner with the campers and earn their trust. This is their time to have worry-free fun.
10. Remember that this is a team effort!

Sonia Schonning is the Director of Sales and Marketing at Camp Wingate*Kirkland on Cape Cod, Mass. Reach her at heysonia@campwk.com .