Many day and resident camps cater to special dietary requirements and restrictions, taking care to respect Kosher diets, lactose and gluten intolerances, and vegetarianism and veganism, as well as staying vigilant about food allergies and gastric disorders (like Celiac disease). Over the years, camp owners and directors have been educating themselves about children’s special dietary needs, allergies, and food sensitivities, and are happy to accommodate such requirements. Families shouldn’t assume that just because their child has food sensitivities or restrictions that they can’t go to day or sleepaway camp—there are plenty of yummy options on the table.
Though, it is a two-way street when it comes to matters of the stomach and plate—most camps are happy to accommodate, but parents need to be forthcoming about their kids’ mealtime needs.
“Whatever your child’s dietary needs may be, it is important for parents to be honest with the camp director at the camp they are interested in sending their child to,” says Adam Weinstein, executive director of the American Camp Association, New York and New Jersey. “Even if a camp doesn’t state their food policy on their website or in their brochure, parents should talk to the camp director and make sure they understand your child’s needs and that you also understand what the camp can handle and accommodate.”
With an increase in the prevalence of food allergy diagnoses among children, many traditional day and sleepaway camps are accommodating campers with a variety of food-related restrictions, including peanut and tree nut allergies (which are almost always life-threatening). Additionally, staff members are trained in how to handle children with allergies, how to read food labels and packages, and how to administer EpiPens, while food service directors make sure that ordered food items do not contain nut ingredients.
“Several years ago, Brant Lake Camp in the Adirondacks found that the well-documented increase in the incidence of peanut and other food allergies was clearly reflected in our camper population,” says Dave Cramoy, a director at Brant Lake Camp. “Taking a proactive approach, we moved to make camp a safer environment for affected children. We eliminated all nuts and nut-containing products camp-wide, encompassing dining room meals, candy and canteen offerings, cookies and items sent to campers or brought into camp by staff, visitors and campers. No staff member or camper is allowed to bring nuts or nut ingredient products back into camp from trips or time off. The importance of hand washing before returning to camp is also underscored as an additional precaution.”
To prepare families, letters and emails are sent before camp and prior to visiting day reminding parents that no nut products are allowed onto campgrounds and that any packages sent cannot contain nut products. Many resident camps will allow families to send pre-packaged food for their child to make sure there is no unintentional cross contamination with other food products. Parents of day campers can pack nut-free lunches if the camp isn’t peanut- and tree nut-free and camps will make sure there is no cross contamination with the other food.
Other food allergies are dealt with on an individual case basis so parents should talk to the camp director about their child’s specific needs.
Increasingly, there are both day and sleepaway camps that accommodate children the needs of children who are gluten (the protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye)-free (whether due gluten-intolerance, Celiac disease, or personal choice). To comply, camp kitchens and staff will make changes to the types of food they order and serve in an effort to make the menu gluten-free, or at least include a variety of gluten-free options.
Camps are also diligent about ensuring that there is no unintentional cross-contamination with foods that contain gluten. Many camps, besides serving gluten-free meals for these campers, will allow parents to send their own gluten-free meals to camp for their children. Last summer, the New Jersey Y camps partnered with the Celiac Disease Center at ColumbiaUniversityMedicalCenter to create a Gluten-Free Kitchen program.
“We’ve had children with celiac disease, where parents would send gluten-free food to camp each summer and we would supplement it. But last summer was the first [time] we had this level of programming,” Len Robinson, director of the New Jersey Y (NJY) resident camps in Milford, PA, says. “A child with Celiac disease can’t have one crumb of gluten without getting sick. We made a decision [that] we were going to do it the right way.”
Along with the Gluten-Free Kitchen program, NJY camps also wanted to actively change the camp culture.
“Whenever we do inter-camp trips for sports, we make sure there’s gluten-free ice cream. And all meals served at camp are matched up so children who eat gluten-free foods are eating exactly the same food as [the rest of the] children,” Robinson says.
VEGETARIANISM AND VEGANISM
Most camps will happily accommodate campers’ special dietary needs including vegetarian and vegan diets. The majority of summer camps offer a vegetarian option for each meal, as well as an elaborate salad bar at lunch and dinner, which usually includes a variety of vegetables in addition to tofu, hummus, beans, and pasta.
KOSHER AND HALAL
Most camps are more than happy to respect the dietary needs associated with various religions. If your child requires meals that are Kosher or Halal—or any other religion-based dietary request—simply inquire with the camp director about the measures their kitchen staff can take to ensure these needs are met.