It’s no one’s favorite activity, but some kids have to face food allergies at summer camp
By Nancy Maes
Summertime is the season for carefree fun at camp, but parents of children with food allergies have to be extra vigilant to make sure that their youngsters will be safe during their time away from home. If they accidentally eat peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, milk or another allergen, they might have a mild reaction such as hives, or they could have a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction that causes trouble breathing or swallowing.
Dr. Ruchi Gupta is interested in the issues not only in her professional life but in her personal one as well. As associate professor in pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, she researches children’s food allergies. She also grapples with the problem at home because her 6-year-old daughter has food allergies. Gupta, whose daughter is going to camp this summer, says that since 8 percent of children today have food allergies, many camps already are aware of the issues. Some even have food-allergy policies and specific forms for parents to fill out. If not, parents can add details about the allergy and the child’s medications to the general form.
In any case, Gupta recommends calling the camp director to talk about its policy and the procedures in place in case of an emergency and to give the essential information about the foods their child should avoid, the reactions to the allergen the child has had in the past and the medications that that child will be bringing to camp and carrying at all times in case of accidentally eating an allergen. Some camps have medications to treat an allergic reaction. Gupta puts her daughter’s antihistimine to treat mild symptoms and epinephrine injector for severe ones in her backpack, and she recommends giving a set of the medications to the camp counselor as well.
Gupta also suggests downloading a copy of the Food Allergy Action Plan from the Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) website (foodallergy.org). It should be filled out by the child’s physician and given to the camp. The form includes a space for a photo of the child so that all the camp’s staff members will easily recognize him or her and know the emergency procedures.
Dayna Hardin, owner/director of the Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods Camps in Decatur, Michigan, has also dealt with the problem of food allergies both professionally and personally. In the late 1990s, special meals were prepared for one of the campers who had a severe dairy allergy and another who had celiac disease. A few children who were allergic to peanuts and tree nuts sat at a separate table and were served food free of their allergens. But about eight years ago, when the number of campers who were allergic to peanuts and tree nuts grew to between 20 and 30 each 4-week session, Hardin decided that the whole camp would be peanut and tree-nut free.
“We like to use the term peanut and tree-nut aware—a term used by many places—because you can never guarantee with 100 percent certainty that something somewhere hasn’t been contaminated,” says Hardin. She also hired a staff member to be responsible for the special meals prepared for the other children with restricted diets. The nurses at the camp’s health center are at every meal with EpiPens (epinephrine injectors) and Benadryl in the case they have to treat a severe allergic reaction. Although Hardin says there has never been an incidence in which either treatment was needed.
When Hardin’s 10-year-old son was 2, he was diagnosed with food allergies. “The situation was not as overwhelming as it could have been for me because I knew everything from my experience at the camp,” she says. “And [my son] educated me even further because now I really do understand what it means to be allergic to food.”
Hardin sends parents of food-allergic children the camp menus so they can point out foods their children can’t eat and indicate substitutions for them. She asks parents of children with food allergies to fill out a special form about the all specifics of their condition and also talks to them before camp begins.
“I could talk to ten parents who all tell me their child is allergic to peanuts, but the variables in terms of the seriousness is so great that we could almost be talking about ten different medical conditions. Because one child could go into anaphylaxis if another child with peanut butter on their fingers touches him, and another child broke out in hives when he ate peanut butter when he was 2 years old,” says Hardin, whose son outgrew his food allergies. “It’s important for parents to clarify the specific details of their child’s allergy.”
Food allergies cause not only physical reactions but emotional ones as well. Gupta knows about the psychological issues that children with food allergies have to cope with when they are at camp. “My daughter is very conscientious and very good at self-advocacy, but she is sad sometimes because she does miss out on festive-eating situations, and she’s sometimes anxious when she’s eating,” says Gupta.
Hardin points out that although everything is in place to make food allergies a nonissue at Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods Camps, some children still have a high level of anxiety. “I work with kids who have been coming here for years, and they’ll ask me the same questions they’ve asked every year,” she says. “They ask me if I’m sure a food is safe to eat and if they can read the label on the product. Even though many of these kids know the food is OK to eat, we encourage them to ask questions if they feel even a hint of anxiety. And we are happy to read the labels with them because they need reassurance, and it’s our job to make sure they have it.”
Gupta treats this subject in her book The Food Allergy Experience (CreateSpace), which is an excellent guide for families sending their food-allergic children to camp. Gupta wrote it to dispel misconceptions and help these families and their children with food allergies—along with everyone else who touches their lives in all kinds of situations—to better understand the medical facts about food allergies.
The book tells personal stories about the practical and psychological impact that food allergies have had on families and the ways that they have found to cope. It also includes a list of additional resources. The book is illustrated with comic-book–style images that add a lighthearted touch to this serious medical condition that, with the necessary precautions in place, should not have to put a damper on the camping experience.