Some years ago, my friend Jill began searching for a camp that could accommodate her daughter Maya’s multiple food allergies. She engaged in conversations with various camp directors, but still had reservations. Despite their assertions, Jill knew in her gut that these camps were not prepared for a child with severe food allergies.
Likewise, I too had an unsettling feeling after checking out a popular camp for my son. Its policies looked great on paper and the director was confident that the staff could handle my son’s food allergies.
But while touring the camp, I witnessed uninterested teenage counselors who left me wary. I decided on a different activity for my son that summer, but found myself back at that camp the following year – training those same teens about food allergies. The director had hired me after a camper experienced a serious allergic reaction when he was mistakenly served a nut-laden trail mix.
After this peek behind the scenes, I’m even more convinced that it’s not just what they say, but what you see and even how you feel that will help you choose the right camp for your child. To start the selection process, decide on the type of camp based on your child’s age, followed by their maturity level and allergy severity.
3-5 year olds – At this age, a half-day camp may be just right, and can avoid the lunch worries. But snacks and sometimes food crafts may need to be addressed.
6-9 year olds – Full-day camps become a more feasible option at school age. Kids should bring their own lunch and safety precautions for community snacks and contact activities should be discussed.
10-12 year olds – If your tween is enjoying safe sleepovers at friends’ houses, then he might be ready for an overnight camp. Additional considerations include the risk of meals prepared by others, remote locations and off-site excursions.
13 and up – Overnight and special interest camps are more accessible at this age, but these are high-risk anaphylaxis years, so adults still need to be available to support safe choices and respond immediately in case of a reaction.
Once you’ve identified a potential camp, contact the director to get a feel for the camp’s preparedness. The following questions will assist you:
How does your camp handle food allergies?
Ideally, they have a written policy and practiced emergency procedures with a willingness to address the unique needs of your child.
Where are the epinephrine auto-injectors kept?
Kids should self-carry at camp, but it certainly helps if the camp stocks epinephrine on the premises.
ls there a nurse or other medical professional on-site?
Even if a doctor is on-site, that person may not be immediately available, so also ask if additional staff is trained to administer epinephrine.
How far is the nearest medical facility?
They should know where and how long it would take to get there.
Are campers taken off-site for activities?
A young child should be accompanied by an adult who is trained to administer epinephrine at all times.
What kind of food allergy training does the staff receive?
Every employee should know how to avoid, recognize and respond to allergic reactions.
How is food safely prepared for individuals with food allergies?
Food-service personnel must have an in-depth understanding of food allergies and specific procedures for preparing and serving food with safe ingredients and without cross-contamination.
Is the camp accredited?
Check with the American Camp Association (ACA). An accredited camp has met more than 300 health and safety standards.
What accommodations have you made the past?
These might include a written food allergy management plan, a trained adult nearby at all times, providing safe snacks or special meal preparation, serving and seating arrangements. Camps are considered public facilities and so should make reasonable modifications and not deny participation due to food allergies.
If you still feel uneasy in your search for a suitable summer camp, take a cue from Jill. She decided to pitch herself as a food allergy consultant and one of the camps hired her on the spot. For the past six years, she has been managing food allergies for dozens of kids, and naturally, her daughter Maya is one of the happiest campers!
Gina Clowes is a certified life coach and consultant who helps parents and schools advocate for children with food allergies. She is the founder of AllergyMoms.com, a support community serving thousands worldwide.
Click here for a list of allergy-friendly and gluten-free camps.