For parents of children with food allergies and sensitivities, the thought of sending their child to overnight camp can be very scary. But parents should know that food allergies shouldn’t be a barrier to a wonderful summer at camp. Many camps can accommodate children with food allergies from Celiac to peanut and tree nut allergies to dairy and egg.
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Do Your Research
When researching a camp, there are many questions parents should ask the camp leadership. If your family has a child who has food allergies, that list of questions just doubled! Dave Stricker, Owner & Director of Camp Wah-Nee, a coed overnight camp in the Berkshires says parents need to evaluate the camp directors and make sure they take food allergies as seriously as they do. “From the ownership down and especially in the kitchen, there needs to be an awareness of how to take care of a child with allergies. Ask how the kitchen staff is trained to accommodate your child, who is responsible for monitoring what your child needs, and if there is a point person who is assigned to your child to speak with them each day so they know what’s being prepared and what is safe for your child to eat. Isaac Mamaysky, Director of Camp Zeke, a coed Jewish overnight camp focused on healthy living in Pennsylvania urges parents to look beyond a camp’s website and ask about specific procedures. “We work with a dietician, a number of camp parents and our kitchen staff to put together a detailed manual for allergy procedures to prevent cross contamination. So everyone on our staff and in the kitchen is trained to keep kids safe. We have found that the documented procedures allow us to refine them each year and secondly ensures that our allergy efforts don’t rely on the strength of one chef but is a document that we live by every summer.”
Involving Your Child
One of the best skills children gain at camp is independence and learning to take care of themselves. That goes for taking on some responsibility with their own food allergies. “If you are sending your child to overnight camp, you want to make sure your child is able to ask questions on their own about what is and isn’t in the food,” says Stricker. “We always meet with the parents and child well before camp starts to talk about the specific allergy. Children are part of the conversation so they aren’t just being taken care of but they are part of the process. Children will understand what will happen each day and know from the beginning someone is looking out for them.” At Camp Zeke, there are dedicated allergy chefs who wear bright red shirts that say ‘Ask Me About Allergies’ during each meal in the dining hall. “We never want our campers to make assumptions about food,” says Mamaysky. “The main responsibility of a camper with allergies is to only ask food questions to the people wearing red shirts.”
Each camp will have their own procedures and safety precautions when it comes to handling children with food allergies. It’s important for you to find the one that meets your child’s needs and makes you feel comfortable that your child will be safe. “Over the past few years, we were getting more inquiries about how we handle allergies. As the numbers grew, we decided to take a formal approach to handling food allergies at camp. We set up two separate allergy kitchens. One is gluten-free and the other is dairy-free and egg-free. The entire camp is nut and sesame-free,” explains Mamaysky. “Any food that leaves our dining hall is free of main allergens so if we are having a campfire with s’mores, they will be completely allergen-free. When we go off camp, we don’t trust an outside kitchen. We bring our own food for a child with allergies.” Camp Wah-Nee also brings food when leaving camp. “If we do an intercamp or go to a minor league ball game, we bring our own food for a child with any kind of food sensitivity or allergy. If an older camper is going on a three-day trip, we send the specially trained staff member assigned to that child on the trip and monitor what foods are being consumed on the trip.”
“Finding the right match for your child is the most important thing. When a parent meets a camp that hits their comfort level, they will feel it instinctively,” comments Stricker. “Do not sign up for the camp unless you feel that security when you are talking to the director that this camp focuses on meeting your child’s important needs.” Mamaysky adds, “Many restaurants and other establishments say they can accommodate allergies but those words mean different things depending on who you are talking to. Don’t send your child to the camp unless you are 100% comfortable and certain that they aren’t just using empty words but that the words play out in the practices of the camp.”