Children With Food Allergies
Camps around the country are facing a new challenge with the rise of food allergies among children. Overall, 15-million people in the United States are living with food allergies. That amounts to about one in every 13 children, and 30 percent of these food-allergic children have multiple food allergies. And between 1997 and 2012, the incidence of food allergy increased by 50 percent.
Children with food allergies can do all of the fun things that any other child at camp can do except eat the food they are allergic to. However, because of these allergies, these children are often excluded from normal activities. With some planning and attention from staff, accommodating a child with food allergies can change that child’s life.
Understand The Needs Of Children With Food Allergies
On the camp application, ask about any specific food allergy to determine if it is a life-threatening allergy or only an intolerance. In the allergy section, ask what the symptoms are when the child eats the food and whether the child carries epinephrine for this allergy.
It is important to talk with the parents of a child with a food allergy. Listen to their concerns and be clear about what you are willing to do to accommodate their child. Parents appreciate this information. Some recent legal decisions around the ADA and food allergy have been made, so talk to your legal counsel to clarify what you must do to accommodate a child with a food allergy.
Camp Howard in Oregon’s Columbia Gorge has developed an extensive pre-camp screening process, which helps identify any food-allergy campers, and also any child with another medical condition. At least a month before the summer session begins, camp nurses review each application and identify any food allergies, behavioral and emotional issues, and medication needs. The nurses flag these campers’ profiles and send them to a screening nurse, who calls each parent and asks detailed questions about the situation. This information is shared in the session report and is considered when assigning cabins and working with counseling staff. The session report and food restrictions are provided to kitchen staff the Wednesday before the session begins so the staff can plan the menus and prepare the kitchen.
Many parents are willing to work with a camp and are willing to suggest safe manufacturers or provide snacks or meals for their child as long as the camp has a safe place to store them.
Sending a menu to the family before camp begins is a great way to open a dialogue with the parents and to make easy changes to the menu to accommodate the camper. It also encourages families to try some of the meals in advance. An allergic camper should not be trying new foods at camp!
Prepare And Train For An Emergency Response
All camps should have a plan for responding to an allergic reaction. Epinephrine auto-injectors (EpiPens and Auvi-Qs) are a quick shot of adrenaline that can save a person’s life. All campers with life-threatening food allergies should be required to bring their epinephrine to camp. Depending on the situation, campers might be allowed to carry the medication with them if the “Health House” is too far away.
Food Allergy Research & Education, a national support organization, has an excellent action plan for responding to an allergic reaction (http://www.foodallergy.org/document.doc?id=234). When talking with parents, use this tool as a guide to create an action plan.
Camp Blue Spruce calls the local EMTs in advance to be sure they have epinephrine on the ambulance.
Be sure that any staff members who will be with a child with food allergies understand the situation and know what to look for. At Camp Blue Spruce, the entire staff takes the University of Utah’s online training—A Shot To Live (http://medicine.utah.edu/pediatrics/ashottolive).
Organize The Kitchen
Camps that accept children with food allergies need to be sure kitchen staff is trained in cross-contact and keeping a safe kitchen. If possible, it is always better if the camper can eat the same food as the rest of the camp. Can staff members adapt their menu to eliminate or reduce the use of the offending food? Can sunflower butter be served instead of peanut butter? If there is a dairy allergy, can marinara sauce be served instead of mac and cheese? Avoid the parmesan shakers, which can send dairy products airborne and cause a reaction.
There are several good training modules kitchen staff can use. At Camp Blue Spruce, the entire kitchen staff takes the National Restaurant Association’s course called ServSafe—Allergies. Joel Schaefer, a food-allergy chef based in Portland, Ore., makes several suggestions in his book Serving People with Food Allergies (2011).
Some camps hire food-allergy coordinators, who make sure the children with food allergies have safe meals that are comparable to all of the main meals.
An important note: The time when a child is in most danger of a reaction is when he or she is not in the usual environment or routine. Consider how to handle campers with food allergies during special events. For example, during a big BBQ outside, the situation may become hectic, so be extra careful.
Modify Camp Rules
Just a few changes to daily camp life will make a significant difference for the food-allergic child. For instance, allow all campers to open their care packages only in the dining hall or at another location where food is available. If food is in the care package, make a plan about when and how it will be consumed in order to include the allergic camper.
Many children with food allergies like to know where they will sit at each meal. Sometimes they feel more comfortable at the end of a table to have only one other person next to them. Sometimes they prefer to sit at a designated allergy-free table, although this can be isolating, so the pros and cons must be considered.
Determine how the allergic child’s food will be served and who is responsible for serving it.
If possible, ask everyone to use a hand-wipe as they leave the dining hall. This ensures that the sticky allergen will not end up on a paintbrush at the arts and crafts center and used by an allergic camper. Note: Hand sanitizer does not remove allergic proteins.
Consider Additional Expenses
Including a child with food allergies in camp life is invaluable, but there are some additional costs:
- Additional food costs
- A food-allergy coordinator or designated kitchen staff member
- Pre-camp screening staff
- Allergy-designated kitchen supplies.
Why Is Camp Important?
A camp is a place for children to try new things, meet new people, challenge themselves, and develop confidence and independence. Camp is especially important for children with food allergies because of the difficulty in being independent from their parents, and it is harder for them to find opportunities to safely try new and challenging things.
People with food allergies live with day-to-day anxiety because they may accidentally eat a food that might lead to a dangerous allergic reaction. Often, social situations are difficult to navigate for a person with a food allergy. By creating an effective system to include kids with food allergies in a camp setting, you are offering an opportunity to change a life!
Louise Tippens is the founder, and Gina Napoli is a board member of Camp Blue Spruce, a worry-free camp for kids with food allergies in Falls City, Ore. For more information, visit firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Eight Offenders
Eight foods cause 90 percent of allergic reactions:
- Tree nuts
Student to Instructor Ratio: 80 campers/30 staff
Location: Falls City, in the beautiful coast-range of Oregon
Cost to Attend Camp: $725
Ages: 9 to 17
Camp Blue Spruce provides children with food allergies a summer-camp experience where they can be independent, confident, and carefree. Learn more at www.campbluespruce.org.