Camps deal with lots of changes- from the prevalence of social media to reliance on cell phones to kids whose summers are super busy. One major change in the past five years or so has been the increase of special dietary needs in campers.
How can you, as a parent, ensure that your child has a safe, healthy experience at camp?
1. Early Preparation
How do you decide if your child is ready for Camp? Well, there are lots of things that will help you determine if your camper is mature enough to handle Camp, but special considerations have to come into play if your camper has food allergies or dietary needs.
Your child should be able to recognize food items that they can and cannot eat.
Your child is his best advocate in every situation, including Camp. If your child can't handle gluten, he should be able to recognize the food items that might be risky. If your child isn't identifying food he shouldn't eat, he isn't ready for Camp, yet.
Your child should be comfortable talking to adults about food needs.
Even if your kid is able to recognize foods that could be an issue, he may come across items that he isn't sure about. If your child has a peanut allergy, he should be comfortable making sure a food item doesn't contain peanuts by asking an adult. If your kid isn't confident in this, it's something you need to work on before coming to Camp.
It's also a good idea to discuss which staff members they should talk to if they have questions. Obviously, the best person would be the cook or chef. While cooks don't usually get to know the campers very well, they truly love children- trust me, they're not working at Camp for the money! Other staff members who can help are programming staff, like the program director. Check out the Camp's website- they may have photos of these key staff members.
Your child should be familiar with the "just in case."
Your child should be aware of what an allergic reaction could feel like (itchy mouth and tongue, trouble breathing, rashes, and intestinal discomfort, for examples). Some children have, unfortunately, experienced a reaction, so they know what one feels like, but some kids haven't... and they should recognize the signs of one before coming to Camp.
Your child should also know what to do in case of an allergic reaction. For example, if he may need to use an EpiPen, he should be trained in the procedure. Most Camps do have medical personnel on staff, but again, your child is his own best advocate.
2. Active Communication
So you've decided your child is ready for Camp- the next step is to help Camp get ready for him! You'll want to be sure that once you choose the right Camp, you provide them with all the information they need to ensure a safe experience for your camper!
Different Camps approach registration in different ways- some use paper forms, some have online sign ups... but they should all include a section for medical needs. You will want to be very specific about your child's diet- including limitations (can your child have a small amount of dairy, but shouldn't drink milk?). If needed, you also want to discuss what treatment options include (EpiPen? Lots of water?). The more details you include, the better prepared the Camp staff will be.
Even after you've gotten the information on the form, it's a good idea to make a personal contact. Call the office and ask to speak to the cook or food service manager. The cook may have additional questions or clarifications to make with you. (Note: In the off-season, many food service folks are part-time, so you may need to leave a message)
Another thing that I would suggest, although it isn't done very often in my experience, is to consider sending a photo of your child. Camp staff see hundreds (hopefully thousands!) of names a season- names can be easy to forget or mix up. When you have five Haileys coming to Camp during the same week, it's hard to remember which Hailey can't have peanuts. If the staff know what your child looks like, they'll be better able to protect him.
The Camp staff should have every means of contacting you, from e-mail to work phone to cell phone. If there are questions or concerns, you should be easily accessible.
Most Camps require an emergency contact person, in case neither parent can be reached. I'd suggest giving very specific instructions to your emergency contact- they should know your express desires in case of an emergency, and should be able to answer questions about your child's allergy.
Think about other potential places your child may come into contact with an allergen- like the Camp Store or Canteen (most Camps have a place for kids to purchase candy or souvenirs).
If your child cannot have any contact with peanuts, for example, and smelling peanut on another child's breath could cause a reaction, you may ask Camp to pull all peanut-products from the store or make other accommodations. Camp staff want safe kids, first and foremost.
3. Willing Participation
As a parent of a child with special dietary needs, you may have to go above and beyond to ensure your child's food safety. You should be prepared to send...
Some Camps provide specialized meal plans for those with dietary needs, but require a doctor's note or medical record. Be willing to share these if asked.
An Additional Fee.
Specialized dietary plans can be expensive for a Camp! Most religious-affiliated Camps are non-profits, and in the face of some tough economic times, many have reduced the cost of Camp so more kids are able to come to come- and that means that Camps make very little money. Add the cost of a specialized meal, and the Camp very well may be losing money. Be willing to pay an additional fee if asked, or offer another solution.
Bring or Supplement Meals.
Some Camps simply don't have the ability to provide meals to those with specific dietary needs. Be understanding- you may need to send some food to Camp for your child.
You may ask for the menu from the cook if you would like to try to send similar meals for your camper so they don't "stick out," but most of the time, the other kids are too busy singing and laughing to really pay attention.
If you are bringing all the meals for your camper, it is more than reasonable to ask to have a reduced charge for your child's week at Camp- most Camps include the cost of food in the program fee- and your camper doesn't eat it, you shouldn't have to pay for it!
Going to Camp is a wonderful experience for a kid. It's amazing how much growing and maturing and smiling, Camp-song-singing, and new-friend-making your child can do in just a matter of days. It takes a little extra prep work, but kids with dietary needs can (and do!) have awesome and safe Camp experiences. Get your child signed up for Camp this summer!