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Happy (Allergen-free) Campers

Happy (Allergen-free) Campers

Communicating to parents, camp directors, campers about their options for gluten-free diets and more Helping kids feel confident making choices on their own, away from home

North Carolina State University plays host to thousands of campers over the summer, ranging from elementary school to high school age. There are camps for sports, academics, leadership and more. Many of the campers have allergies or intolerances for gluten, nuts, seafood, eggs and dairy.

In the past, when a camper had concerns about food allergies, it was often addressed last-minute by a camp counselor or a harried parent. University Dining set out to change that this year, starting with early communication and reassurance for campers, their parents and counselors.

“A lot of parents are afraid to send their kids to camp if they have food allergies,” says Claye Paca, MS, dietetic intern at NC State. “So this year we have been proactive and partnered with camp directors to provide parents and camper’s information and assistance to help them manage their food allergies/intolerances.”

University Dining, which already has a strong allergen program in place for college students, produced a packet of information that they sent to the director of campus housing, who then emailed everything to the camp directors.

“As soon as that email was sent, we got immediate feedback from the camp directors, who could send that to parents,” Paca says. “They said, ‘This is such a great idea, thank you so much.’”

This way, months before camp took place, parents could help their kids prepare their campers for a safe dining experience at every meal. Kids arrive at camp knowing to look for signage, “Worry Free Stations,” and even iPads at every meal to guide them along.

“We don’t want the campers to feel singled out when they get to the dining hall with their new friends,” Paca says. “If they know what to look for, they can go eat with confidence.”

The packet includes a food allergy information form that parents can fill out and send in, “giving us a heads-up,” Paca says. Parents and campers can also look over menus with everything offered and the allergens each contains.

North Carolina State University's iPad menu.

Once the campers arrive, signage in the three main dining halls is tailored to younger children when camp is taking place. During the regular school year, each menu item has identifying information on cards with small type and QR codes. For camp, the signs are replaced with larger print that’s easy for kids to see and comprehend at a glance. For example, one menu identifier card for Cheese Stuffed Shells states the name of the item, with allergens printed underneath in red: gluten, dairy, egg.

Dining staff members are trained in safe practices for allergens during their orientation by NC State Registered Dietitian Lisa Eberhart, and numerous in-service days keep them sharp on the basics of cross-contamination and sticking to recipes without substitutions.

In addition, at the entrance of each dining hall is an iPad where you can select breakfast, lunch or dinner, then the special diet you need (such as gluten-free or dairy-free), and the safe choices on the menu for that day and time appear. It’s perfect for “techy” kids, Paca says, and also works great during the regular school year.

The information packet breaks down individual areas of concern for parents. Here's how one section reads:

  • Gluten-Free: Check out our Worry Free Station! We have gluten-free bread, bagels, muffins, and granola for your convenience. Youwill have access to a toaster dedicated to gluten free bread only. Be sure tocheck out our gluten-free soup offered daily!
  • Peanut and Other Nut Allergies: Please check the iPad before eating at the dining hall. We do have items that contain nuts, so be wary of your choices. You need to be very careful with the desserts. They are produced in a kitchen that uses nuts and peanuts.
  • Dairy Allergy: We offer soy milk in the worry free station. Check the iPad for menu choices without dairy.

The packets also provided links to University Dining’s Worry Free Fare page on its website.

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