How to Pick a Summer Camp for Your Food Allergic Child

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Parents keep a very watchful eye on their allergic children. They make sure to know what their child is eating, where it came from, and how it was prepared. So why would a food allergy parent like Karen Danard send her son miles away, and trust his safety under someone else’s supervision for an entire week? Summer camp.

Karen’s peanut-allergic son attended summer camp for ten years, but she admits that it was a very nerve-racking decision in the beginning. “He had never actually been on his own like that before,” she says. But it was an important step for both Karen and her son to take. He would eventually need to be more independent, so controlled experiences with new environments could help him grow with his food allergies. Nonetheless, Karen did her due diligence.

How to Pick a Summer Camp for Your Food Allergic Child - Tips, Starting Points, Questions to Ask, etc.Photo by Ben White

How to Pick a Summer Camp for Your Food Allergic Child

There are a number of factors that parents need to take into account when measuring the level of safety at a summer camp. They range from the obvious kitchen concerns to the unexpected situations on a soccer field. Here are some tips that parents should consider when researching summer camps for their food allergic children.

Check out Camp Websites

A summer camp’s web site may be an initial indication of how allergy-aware and prepared the camp is. Some camps display themselves as quite allergy-aware, and readily provide information and contact numbers on their website. While others show little to no acknowledgement of food allergies. This can help you to narrow down the options. A good starting point is this list of the Best Food Allergy Camps.

Nonetheless, just because a camp provides preliminary information, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be able to make all necessary accommodations. It only shows they have considered allergic campers ahead of time. But once they have your interest, you can move on to the next vetting step.

Phone Ahead

Summer camps are more than ready to discuss safety issues with parents, including food allergies.  However, you should always follow up with what you’re told. “There is this very fine line about putting trust in the person who’s giving you the information,” says Karen. She makes sure to ask the camp how long they’ve been dealing with food allergies and even asks for a family reference to find out what another allergic child’s experience was like.

Karen also takes advantage of the opportunity to ask the camp detailed questions, such as where her son’s Epi-Pen would be when he’s out participating in water sports like canoeing or kayaking. It also gives you the opportunity to inquire about their meal protocols and emergency procedures.

Learn about the Kitchen

It’s essential to address the elephant in the room with any prospective summer camp: the food. Summer camps with a greater kitchen staff to campers ratio will frequently be better at meeting allergy needs, says Lilly Brytus, coordinator of the Allergy/Asthma Information Association’s (AAIA) Food Allergy Summer Camp.

Many camps prepare meals for hundreds of children at a time, making it difficult to remember specific allergies and prevent cross-contamination. AAIA’s camp accepted only 20 campers, making it easier for the kitchen staff of three to manage allergies on a one-on-one basis. Unfortunately, they no longer hold that camp, but their training led the way for many other food allergy-friendly camps to emerge.

Here are some questions to consider asking prospective summer camps.

  • What’s your chef to camper ratio?
  • Do you have a chef dedicated to food allergic or special diet children?
  • Are your chefs trained in proper food handling to prevent cross-contamination with food allergens? If so, what training did they receive?
  • Have you dealt with my child’s food allergies previously (ie dairy, almonds, eggs, etc)?
  • Does your staff contact food manufacturers before placing orders to confirm ingredients and potential cross-contamination in foods or do they stick to label reading?
  • Can I prepare meals and snacks ahead and send them ahead to your food staff? How and where will they be stored?

Find out Emergency Procedures

Parents need to know what the emergency procedure is if their child has an allergic reaction. Do they have nurses on site and doctors on call? And are the staff members trained for emergency situations? How many auto-injectors are at the camp and where are they kept?

All summer camp staff should be taught to recognize signs of anaphylaxis and should know how to administer an auto-injector. Some camps practice with mock auto-injectors. If your concerned on the level of training, you can ask the camp if you can conduct your own training session. This may give you a great sense of peace of mind knowing that you have personally trained each person who is in contact with your child.

You should also assure that their child’s auto-injector will be within reach, though most camps will also have spare auto-injectors on site. Many camps insist that children keep their auto-injectors with them, but some allow children to leave their auto-injectors elsewhere. If this is the case, confirm that auto-injectors are available at every activity site.

And don’t forget to check how far the nearest hospital is to the camp. Make sure the staff knows that your child must be taken there immediately following a reaction, if one occurs. This can all be detailed out for the camp in an Emergency Plan.

Trust Your Instincts

In the end, it’s about how comfortable you as a parent feel about sending your child to summer camp.  Summer camps are becoming more aware of food allergies, as evidenced by this growing list of Gluten-Free & Food Allergy-Friendly Camps. But there are still a number of considerations parents need to make.  Will all of your child’s needs be met?  How safe will the meals be?  How efficiently can an allergic reaction be taken care of? Summer camp staff can only provide information. It is the job of parents to assess it and make the decision that is most appropriate for your situation.

About the Author

This story was originally submitted by Michelle Medford, and shared with us by AllergySense in 2009. However, we have edited the article to keep it current. At the tme of writing, Michelle was a student of journalism at Ryerson University with a passion for writing.  She has been living with allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame and peas since she was in kindergarten and realizes the need to educate and inform others about food allergies.  One of her first feature pieces scoped the Toronto dining scene to discover how they are holding up against the rise of food allergies.

For More Help, See Our Guide to Food Allergy-Friendly Camps

THE Big List of Gluten-Free, Vegan and Food Allergy Camps for Kids

About Author

Alisa is the founder of GoDairyFree.org, Food Editor for Allergic Living magazine, and author of the best-selling dairy-free book, Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook for Milk Allergies, Lactose Intolerance, and Casein-Free Living, and the new cookbook, Eat Dairy Free: Your Essential Cookbook for Everyday Meals, Snacks, and Sweets. Alisa is also a professional recipe creator and product ambassador for the natural food industry.

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