Food Allergies Go to Overnight Camp!

Sending any child away to camp for the first time can be daunting – and this is all the more true when that child has life-threatening food allergies. Most camps, these days, aim to be nut- and peanut-free, but how can you be sure that the overnight camps on your short list truly take allergies seriously? Browsing each camp’s published literature and web site can only take you so far. There is no substitute for a direct conversation with the directors, since they are the ones who make – and enforce – the camp’s policies. And once you have the director on the phone (or, in some cases, in your home) here are some questions that will help you determine how safe the camp may be for your child:

What information (and supplies) does the camp require in the case of campers with life-threatening allergies, and how do they handle the information and supplies, once the camper gets to camp?

Overnight camps should request detailed information about life-threatening allergies. But be sure to ask what they do with this information, too. Are counselors made aware of all allergies in their cabins? Are kitchen staff informed, and are photographs of children with allergies posted prominently, where food is served? Camps should also require that parents send at least two Epipens – one to be kept on the camper at all times, and another to be stored with the camp nurse.

What steps does a camp take to ensure that their entire facility remains peanut- and nut-free?

Most camps ban peanuts and nuts in their kitchens, as far as is possible. But what about the rest of the camp facility? Does the camp ban campers and staff from bringing these products onto camp? Do counselors check with their campers as they unpack, to ensure any snack products are peanut and nut free? And do they check more than just their food? Many shampoos, hand creams and other personal care products do contain nuts. All these need to be checked, especially in facilities where washrooms and showers are communal.

Most camps may be prepared to ban peanuts and nuts from the site, but if your child has a different life-threatening food allergy, what steps will the camp take to ensure their safety?

With allergies to foods not regularly used in camps (such as avocado or shell fish) it may be reasonable to ask the camp if the product could be excluded from all meals for the duration of your child’s stay. Our camp has certainly done this for campers on many occasions. If your child has a life-threatening allergy to a food other than peanuts or nuts, then you will need to put together a careful action plan with the director, to ensure your child remains safe at camp. What plans can be put in place to ensure your child’s safety, on days when the allergen is served? While it is impossible to remove all risk, certain strategies will minimize the chance of a reaction. For example, if your child is permitted to go first in buffet lines, then there is less chance of cross-contamination of foods. Your child’s plate and cutlery can be washed and stored separately from others. In the case of food additives, you can endeavor to provide the camp – and your child’s counselor – with detailed information on which products may be of concern. Discuss other ideas with the camp director. Remember than most directors will have encountered this issue many times before, and will want to work with you to keep your child safe.

How does the camp handle allergies when campers are off site?

In the case of day trips, does the camp take the time to scout out the location of nearby hospitals, and do Epipens – and the camp medical personnel – accompany campers on the trip? If your child’s group is to be supervised by an individual other than their camp counselor, is that person made aware of life-threatening allergies? Perhaps most importantly, are campers permitted to purchase snack foods during the day trip, and if so, how does the camp ensure children do not inadvertently come in contact with allergens? Out-tripping presents a whole other set of challenges, and you may want to ask questions about how the camp ensures the trip is safe for a child with life-threatening food allergies, and how far from medical help the group will be, should a problem occur.

Don’t forget to ask about the care available, should your child have an anaphylactic reaction!

Are camp staff taught the necessary procedures, such as how to administer an Epipen? Is there a health care professional on site with sufficient expertise to help your child? And how far away is the hospital? You may want to ask how long the camp anticipates it would take for emergency vehicles to arrive in the case of an anaphylactic reaction, and whether the camp keeps a back-up supply of Epipens. This may help you determine how many Epipens you will want to send with your child.

But talking with the director can help you find out far more than the answers to the questions above. It will help you decide how seriously the director takes the issue of food allergies. The most extensive camp policies mean little if the director is haphazard in ensuring they are implemented. You may get answers to all the questions you ask, but the most important thing is to get a feel for the director herself. Do you believe she will take the needs of your child seriously? Making sure that your child is in the hands of a director you trust is the most important part of ensuring a healthy, successful camp experience for him, and a worry-free summer for you.