Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Food Allergy and Summer Camp: Resources for Parents

With spring comes thoughts of summer camp for our kids. But what if they have life-threatening food allergies? Obviously, we are going to have some serious concerns that need to be addressed by the camp, but in many cases our kids can participate.

The photo I share above is of my oldest daughter as a Girl Scout, nearly five years ago. She desperately wanted to attend Girl Scout day camp, a story that I shared here in an essay that I wrote for Allergic Living magazine. (By the way, today is the last day to subscribe to receive the spring issue! I've contributed some food and product info, and there is even an interview with author John Grisham who suffers from food allergies. Subscribe by following this link.)

Like you, I had my doubts and serious concerns. My daughter was only finishing second grade, so she still needed lots of help managing her allergies. Luckily, we had a successful week but I did receive a few phone calls while camp was in session--just one was food allergy related.

Sleepaway camp is not something we've tackled yet, but my daughter would like to. I would approach any camp the same way that I did with her day camp.

First of all, I would suggest that your child not be the pioneer allergic camper unless you can really trust the camp administrators to understand food allergies. I say this because it is really much better if they already have food allergy plans in place, have served allergic campers successfully and have gone through the drills needed to execute an emergency action plan if it were needed. Of course, it's up to you, but one of the deciding factors for me and my husband when we allowed our daughter to attend GS camp was that they had separate forms and contact people for food-allergic campers and a full time EMT at the camp. Plus, the camp was not in an overly remote location--basically, it was not an hour to the nearest hospital. I know, not pleasant to think about but important to know.

Second, what is the food service situation? If day camp, can your child bring their own food and who will take care of it for them? Can you be given a menu so that you can anticipate any food allergy problems in advance? If a sleepaway camp, are the cooking staff trained in food allergy management and do they know about cross-contact issues? Do they know how to provide an allergic camper a safe meal? Try to speak to the people who do the actual cooking.

Also, does the camp serve peanut butter to campers and if so, how do they protect the allergic kids? For example, do they offer separate eating areas and is handwashing enforced before and after lunch?

Third, what do they do with the epinephrine auto-injectors? Where are they stored, can your camper carry one and who knows how to use them?

If at all possible, I highly recommend a nut-free camp for those dealing with life-threatening nut allergies. There are more of these than you think. I was a co-host at a live online chat at The Motherhood last year with Lori Sandler of the awesome Divvies (famous nut-free, egg-free, dairy-free treats) that discussed summer camp, parties and play dates. Lori invited some wonderful leaders of camp associations to attend and they had some terrific resources and advice. You can click here to see the transcript/summary of that chat.

The bottom line is that you have to do your homework before giving the OK to any camp. Check out food service, the available emergency medical care, common camp activities (for example, are they big on art projects involving food?) and investigate the training given to the camp staff. Discuss these things in person if possible, but don't rely on e-mail alone. An initial phone call is helpful, too. I've found that it's important to have an actual conversation with the staff because you get a better opportunity to determine their comfort level with your questions and concerns.

Your child's age and responsibility level is also a key factor. For me, sleepaway camp is better for the older kids, since we can usually count on them to be more self-sufficient at managing their allergies.

You're the best judge to decide if your food-allergic child is ready for camp, but for those of you who have taken the plunge, how did it go for you? Any advice for newbie campers out there?


Anonymous said...

I took a grp of teens I work with to a camp for a weekend once & I noticed they had peanut free signs up in the dining hall (I have a TN allergy myself & am pretty aller-aware). I soon discovered they had peanut butter in the pantry. When asked I was told it was only for staff & they didn't give it to campers. I questioned & was told they advertise as an 'allergy aware' camp. So asking questions is uber important!! I took it as an opportunity to educate, hopefully they shaped up (& luckily I had no food allergies other than mine in the group)!

Nora said...

I sincerely hope you are not advocating peanut free camps. What no perishable, affordable lunch options do you suggest for the overwhelming majority of children who are not peanut allergic?

Rainey Daye said...

Sunbutter is an allergy-free alternative that works quite nicely in place of peanut butter. We gave it to my son long before he ever had his anaphylactic reaction and trip to the ER, simply because we didn't want to give him peanut products before he was two. Yes, it is a little more expensive than peanut butter...but in the context of camps one jar will most definitely fill the need for the duration of all but the longest of summer camps. You can get a 3 pack of the natural no-stir creamy kind for less than $14 on Amazon if you do subscribe & save (and then cancel the subscription after receiving your order). I also sometimes find it for less than two dollars a jar at our local salvage grocery store (and it's perfectly fine and within the expiration dates).

For my little guy I pack an awesome lunch (and would pack the same were he not allergic if I knew we'd be around other allergics). He gets a Sunbutter sandwich cut into dinosaurs, a baggie of baby carrots, a baggie with an apple that I've cored/peeled/quartered, a whole banana in its peel, a Fruitables juice box, a small container of Craisins, and some Enjoy Life cookies (these are safe for kids with wheat, peanut, tree nut, egg, and dairy allergies) or a couple of Dum-Dums lollipops (also safe). If I don't have bought cookies handy I can just pull out a muffin/brownie/slice of zucchini bread I've made ahead and frozen and put that in (added bonus it helps keep the rest of the lunch cool). My kiddo never goes hungry and it doesn't take me any longer to pack his lunch than one with a pb&j.

It isn't the end of the world to not be able to pack a peanut butter sandwich. It is the end of some children's life if they are exposed to peanuts/peanut products.

Jenny said...

Thanks, Julie, for the SunButter suggestion. I second it and in fact their website has a link for schools/camps where if you buy in bulk you may get a discount.

My daughter went to Girl Scout camp and it was peanut-free. This was nearly 5 years ago and the camp was not expensive. Somehow they managed, in hot June weather, to feed the Girl Scouts without using peanut butter. I think it's great if camps want to take this step because the fact is that it reduces the risk and makes camp a safe place for all campers.

Unknown said...

I am excited to announce that a group of allergy parents, allergists, and camp professionals are launching Camp Blue Spruce, a worry free camp for kids with food allergies! Camp Blue Spruce is being held August 19 – 24 outside of Portland, Oregon. No dairy, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, fish, shellfish, soy, wheat/gluten or sesame will be served. Can you imagine the freedom allergic kids will feel when they can eat everything that is served and spend a week without worrying all the time? We expect this summer’s pilot to be a success, and hope to be able to run more weeks in future years. Our website, should be up by the beginning of April. If you have questions before then, please email Thanks! Louise, DS: ana - dairy, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts

sharon said...

What an interesting idea to have an allergen free camp. As a nurse, I would be willing to take my vacation and volunteer to be present at such a camp! This gives me hope that my 7 yr old son can someday enjoy a safe week long camp! WOW. Who knows..maybe such an option could open up on the east coast too! Sharon (mom of son who is ANA to egg, peanut and fish)