One in every 13 children in the U.S. is affected by food allergies or intolerances. In a camp of 300 children, that means as many as 23 children may require special meal preparation.
All food allergies are not created equal. If a child with a peanut allergy is exposed to peanuts, it is often a life-threatening situation requiring immediate medical attention. If a child with celiac disease is exposed to gluten, they will likely have abdominal discomfort and associated symptoms, which may not occur until 72 hours after the exposure.
Handling food allergies effectively requires coordination of safe food handling, meal preparation, meal provision and dealing with exposure, so having a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) is considered best practice. Only an RDN has multiple layers of nutrition education and is considered the expert in handling such serious nutrition issues. Many camps are staffing nutrition professionals to handle everything from meal planning to gluten-free meal preparation to carbohydrate counting for campers with diabetes. If you do not have a nutrition professional on staff, some basic facts regarding food allergies are included below.
What is a food allergy?
An abnormal response to a food triggered by our body’s immune system resulting in symptoms.
An allergic reaction occurs when the immune system attacks a food protein that is normally harmless. The body responds by producing large amounts of histamine, which can result in symptoms that can be life threatening. These symptoms may include: swelling of the mouth, throat and tongue, difficulty breathing, lowered blood pressure and gastrointestinal distress.
A true food allergy is not the same as a food intolerance. The term “food intolerance” encompasses any adverse reaction to a food source that is not caused by an immune response.
What are the most common food allergies?
The following eight foods account for 90 percent of all food allergies: peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, eggs, milk, soy and wheat.
How many people do they affect?
Nearly 8 percent of school-age children suffer from food allergies.
How to provide safe meals?
- Prepare meals for those with allergies in a separate area using pots, pans, toasters and utensils kept for those foods only.
- Wash your hands and all surfaces prior to preparing meals.
- Use squeeze bottles for condiments to avoid putting contaminated utensils into a jar.
- Read all food labels; allergens can be found in many unexpected places, including seasonings and condiments.
What do you do if accidental exposure occurs?
Understand which allergy or intolerance you are dealing with.
For allergies that result in anaphylaxis, epinephrine, in the form of an EpiPen, is the medication of choice for controlling a severe reaction.
For milder reactions, an antihistamine may be adequate.
For accidental exposure to gluten, there is often no need for intervention. Celiac disease is a delayed hypersensitivity reaction. Symptoms generally occur 48 to 72 hours after exposure and may present as abdominal pain, bloating, and/or diarrhea.
It is becoming increasing popular to follow a gluten-free diet. For some it is for a true celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disease that leads to damage of the small intestine with gluten ingestion. For others, there is a perceived health or weight loss benefit. In order to provide healthy gluten-free meals (not just pre-made, frozen meals) in an environment free of cross contamination, the staff preparing and providing the meals must be educated. The following link is a great resource for camps providing this service: http://www.celiaccentral.org/Courses/GREAT-Schools-Colleges-Camps/1053/
Caring for other people’s children is an immense responsibility. Providing safe and healthy meals is one of the most important aspects of a safe and healthy summer. Best wishes for a healthy Camp Season 2016!