Safely Navigating Food Allergies at Summer Camp
Sitting around the campfire. Canoeing on the lake. Playing capture the flag. Every Super Awesome kid should get to frolic in the woods somewhere without fear of a dangerous allergen. Last year, pandemic restrictions may have squashed your day camp or sleep-away plans. But as camps reopen with new guidelines from the CDC, your kids might be excited about sleeping bags and sing-alongs once again.
For food allergy families, sending kids off to a new environment for the day or overnight is more complicated – okay, possibly a recipe for an anxiety attack! But before you start breathing into a paper bag, remember that camps have come a long way since we were little campers. Many camps are now specifically geared toward kids with food allergies, including nut, dairy, and gluten-free camps. Most others are aware of increasing allergies and have allergy management plans in place along with safety training for staff.
As always, research and communication are key to making sure your child has a great experience and so you don’t spend the break imagining worst-case scenarios at 3:00 am. (Not that we ever do that!) Here are some questions to start asking as a family and from the camp director and staff.
- What is your comfort level with different types of camps? Is day camp or sleep-away camp the best option for your child?
- Does your child need an allergen-free camp or can other camps make arrangements to keep them safe?
- How remote is the camp? Can they contact you if your child has a reaction?
- How far away is the nearest hospital?
- Who handles medical care at camp? Are they trained to administer epinephrine?
- Do campers bring their own lunch and snacks, or does the camp provide meals?
- Are allergen-free meals made separately to avoid cross-contamination?
- Is there a safe place for your child to eat?
- Do kids wash their hands before and after eating?
- Will art, crafts, or projects involve allergens like play dough, beans, or macaroni?
- Where will your child’s medication be stored and who will carry it?
- Will there be field trips? If so, are all drivers and staff trained and able to respond if necessary?
Once you have chosen a camp, start the allergy conversation early. Fully explain your child’s allergies and the symptoms of a reaction on the camp application or health form and contact the camp director personally. You may need to provide extra medical information or an allergy action plan. Check that all staff who will be caring for your child have the right knowledge and training, including nurses, lifeguards, drivers, cafeteria staff, teachers, counselors and volunteers. Our Digital Food Allergy Card is a great way to make sure everyone at camp can access your child’s information easily.
Before camp begins, start the conversation with your child as well. Go over the plan for camp meals and activities, safety rules, ways to avoid exposure, and what a reaction might feel like. Talk about how to speak up with unfamiliar counselors or nurses about a possible reaction or an unsafe situation.
When you drop your child off, introduce yourself to the staff and confirm that the plans you discussed are in place. Bring a packet for the counselor or nurse that includes your child’s medical documents or allergy action plan, epinephrine or other medications, and a recent photo. If your child is in day camp, you can check in with them after pick up. How did lunch go? Did everyone wash their hands? Did anything make you uncomfortable? If your child is heading to sleep-away camp, you may still be able to schedule a phone call or two to touch base.
Although nerves might be inevitable whenever your child is away from you, remember that you have done your homework and taken every precaution to make their camp experience as fun and safe as possible. Now they get to enjoy the great outdoors, and you get to enjoy stress balls and maybe meditation.