Taking a bite out of allergy anxiety

When sending a kid with diet restrictions to camp, questions are key

Summer camp is a place of adventure, exploration and burgeoning independence and an experience that lasts a lifetime.

But for parents of children with life-threatening food allergies, the notion of sending their child away from under their watchful eye can lead to extreme anxiety.

Luckily, within Ontario many camps have been quick to respond to the growing influx of children with dietary restrictions, most already having a peanut-free policy in place. By doing some homework and researching the strategies that a camp has put in place to protect its most vulnerable campers, many parents can feel confident in allowing their children to enjoy the camp experience along with the rest of their friends.

According to Dr. Joey Shulman, one of Canada’s leading authorities on health and nutrition, children with food allergies are still on the rise and now make up three to six per cent of the pediatric population.

However, she says that, by forming a partnership with your chosen camp and taking the proper precautionary measures, children can be just as safe at camp as they are in their own homes.

“Camp time can be tricky for parents, but there are steps they can take,” says Shulman.

“Ask the standard questions: ‘Where is the epi pen stored?’; ‘Can a child carry their own medication?’; ‘Where is the closest hospital,?’ and ‘Are the staff trained in CPR?’”

She also recommends children be identified with a medical bracelet, that parents be clear with the camp on what reactions they have seen from their child in the past, and if their child is responsible about the allergy or more likely to take risks and share food if its offered.

“Your child should be educated on the fact that they do have allergies, but never, ever put the responsibility on the child because their decision-making skills are not like ours,” she says.

Shulman points to Camp Timberlane as an excellent example of a camp that is taking the correct steps to ensure its campers’ safety, having a policy of no outside food, epi pen stations set up throughout the camp, monitoring a comprehensive list of children with allergies as they go about their day and requiring at-risk children to carry epi pens with them.

“We always have a registered nurse, three assistants and a doctor on staff 24/7,” says camp director Corey Mandell. “Luckily we’ve never had that emergency, but we are eight minutes away from a local hospital, and our staff are trained in how to deal with it.”

David Farnell, founder of Real Food for Real Kids (RFRK) all-natural catering company says he and his team have been catering for area children’s camps for the past three years and have fielded a dramatic increase in the amount of parental requests for allergy specific meals.

He says one of the biggest hurdles a camp can face in dealing with catering to allergic children is that often they aren’t directly making all the food themselves and have to outsource some of their baking and ingredients to places that may not necessarily be free from contamination.

RFRK, on the other hand, makes all of its food from scratch in its own kitchen and employs a full-time “food detective” to trace back all of its ingredients to their source to ensure that there are no problems from start to finish.

“Parents should definitely ask the question of who’s making their child’s food at camp, how, when, and what are the ingredients,” he says.
Farnell also recommends parents ensure that their children get comprehensive allergy testing to pinpoint exactly what it is they are allergic to, so that those providing catering services to their children know specifically what to avoid.

Ellen Howard, director and owner of Zodiac Swim School & Specialty Camp and Camp Tamarak, agrees that parents should be specific, when it comes to their children’s allergies, in order to maintain the safest camp environment.

“I want them to be as clear as possible, give as many details as possible and not be vague because if they’re vague it means their kids are vague, too,” she says. 

“We want parents to work with us, ask as many questions as possible and let us know what we can do,” she says. “The last thing we want is for parents to assume we can’t work with them and cast aside the camp experience.”

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO