Don’t Let Allergies Be An Obstacle

As food allergies continue to be a public-health concern, it is ever more likely that camps will be asked to accommodate children with serious food allergies. It is currently estimated that as many as 15-million people have food allergies, with nearly 6 million of those being children. Noting that food allergies are responsible for more than 300,000 emergency-room visits for children each year, is your camp doing enough to create a safe environment for campers who enter through your gates? The stakes are high regarding food allergies because one camp participant may develop hives and have difficulty breathing, but another could experience anaphylaxis, resulting in death. There is no cure for food allergies; therefore, vigilance is essential in presenting a safe environment for campers.

In order for concerned parents to see a particular camp as a viable option, it is essential that all staff be trained to understand and be familiar with food allergies and treatments:

  • Common food allergies
  • Methods for preventing exposure and cross-contamination
  • Family assistance in preparing for camp
  • Necessary treatment options.

Awareness, preparation, and communication are the keys in providing a successful camp experience for food-allergic individuals.

Introducing Staff To Allergies

Camp directors should not assume that staff members understand food allergies, nor how important awareness is in the day-to-day operations of the camp facility. Training for staff can be provided through a number of sources, such as a local hospital, the camp nurse, or other professionals with appropriate training. It is especially helpful if the person who provides training has familiarity with the particular camp setting.

Diagnosis And Testing

Beyond a general awareness, it can be beneficial to introduce staff members to the process that food-allergic individuals often experience in being diagnosed—beginning with the initial reaction, and progressing to their work with an allergist to determine what may have caused the reaction. When staff members understand the testing that individuals undergo, they gain a better appreciation for the diagnosis and the treatment instructions provided by a physician. Realizing that a food-allergy diagnosis is a valid medical condition, and that their awareness may save children’s lives, camp staff may be more likely to take their responsibilities seriously.

Recognizing Symptoms And Providing Treatment

It is also critical that anyone working with food-allergic campers be trained in recognizing symptoms and providing treatment. Because emergency care is essential, staff members may well find themselves in a position to be the first responders. In that case, familiarity and confidence are helpful in not only treating the individual’s physical reaction, but also in comforting the patient. Epinephrine auto-injector manufacturers have been very generous in providing training devices for use in instruction. Staff members can become familiar with injecting epinephrine without the unnecessary cost of using active auto-injectors. The training devices essentially work in the same way as those that contain medication, but do not contain needles. Trainers can be obtained in prescription product packaging, or may be secured directly from the manufacturer.

Communicating With Parents

In preparing to welcome food-allergic campers, directors must encourage a strong interpersonal communication with a concerned family. From the initial contact, a potential camper’s family wants to know that the camp staff not only is aware of food allergies, possible symptoms, and treatment options, but also has a willingness to answer questions and discuss ways to keep that camper safe. A child’s attendance at camp may be determined by the staff’s response to each question. Questions do not indicate mistrust, but simply show that the parent is interested and wishes to learn more. The camp director and staff should be careful to provide factual and concise responses. It is unlikely that each staff member will have all of the answers, thus the importance of the staff working as a team to address such situations. The primary role of the camp director is to create an atmosphere of caring and compassion that will lay the groundwork in welcoming campers with special needs or requests.

It is critical that each party, whether director, program people, or food-service staff, strive to support the child, and address needs in an efficient and effective manner. Camp staff may need to make a few concessions by offering meal substitutions or alternative preparation methods. Parents may also contribute to the solution by providing some food for meals, or offering support as staff review food labels prior to camp.

Keeping An Open Mind

Throughout the process, the focus should remain on providing an outstanding experience for the camper, promoting enrichment and safety. Camp directors are encouraged to seek out valuable resources—from local medical staff members, online resources, fellow professionals, etc. Opening your camp gates begins with opening your minds to possibilities.

Lisa D. McCutcheon is the Extension Educator for 4-H Youth Development for the Ohio State University Extension. Reach her at (740) 670-5315, or