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Choosing an overnight summer camp for your child or teen with food allergies

Deciding on the right overnight camp is based on a host of factors for most parents, from the camp’s location to the types of activities offered. Add one or more food allergies to the mix, and the decision can feel all the more challenging.

Yet, there are a number of questions that parents can ask summer camp directors before fine-tuning the list of camps and making the big decision. Here are just a few questions to help get the evaluation process started. Parents may wish to add additional questions tailored to their child’s specific allergies, and/or based on consultation with their child’s allergist or pediatrician.

These questions are not in any particular order, all are equally important.

1. How does the camp manage allergens and reduce risks of a reaction?

Is the camp allergy-aware? For example, are the staff who prepare the food trained on managing allergens, do they know how to read ingredient labels, is there a consistent process in place to reduce the risk of cross-contamination? Does the camp have a policy on ingredient sourcing from suppliers? Depending on the child’s food allergies, can special meals be prepared? If so, where would the child’s special foods be stored? (e.g., Away from the child’s allergens? In a separate fridge or pantry?)

2. What kind of emergency training do staff members receive?

A key question to ask camp directors is whether all camp staff receive training on identifying signs/symptoms of an allergic reaction and how to use epinephrine auto-injectors (e.g. EpiPen), with refreshers every season for returning staff. Other related questions include whether campers are allowed to carry their epinephrine auto-injectors, and where the backup devices are stored at camp. (e.g., the infirmary? The dining hall? In every cabin?) Who has access to the backup auto-injectors, and how quickly can they be accessed if needed? You can refer the camp director to AllergyAware.ca where all staff can take a free 30 minute online course on the basics of anaphylaxis, ways to reduce risks of a reaction, and recommended emergency treatment.

3. Is there a plan in place if there is an allergic reaction?

Epinephrine is recommended as the first-line treatment for serious allergic reactions, but it needs to be used as part of a broader emergency plan. Ask whether the camp has a written plan in place, and whether all camp staff members are prepared to use it. For example, what would the first-response scenario look like if an allergic reaction took place in the dining hall? While singing around a campfire? What steps would staff members take? Do they follow the recommended five-step protocol listed here?

4. How are food allergies managed on off-site excursions (e.g., camping, canoe trips, hiking, etc.)?

If off-site activities are likely to take place, and parents are comfortable with their child’s participation, they should ask about the foods that will be served, where and how their child’s food will be stored, and how risk-reduction and emergency first-response would be handled. How many epinephrine auto-injectors would be brought along, and how and where would they be stored?

5. Having a positive attitude!

In addition to the camp’s answers to these questions, there’s another important factor worth considering when it comes to choosing the right summer camp: their attitude towards allergies. A friendly, receptive, allergy-aware voice at the other end of the line — or at a camp fair — at the very beginning of the parent-camp relationship is generally an excellent sign that ongoing dialogue is likely to remain smooth all summer long.

Visit our summer camps page for more tips!