Sunday, July 14, 2013

3 Phrases I Wish Food Service Would Stop Using When Discussing Food Allergies

It's camp time again for a lot of our kids. Even though my son is 18 now, he's fulfilling his childhood-long dream of finally going to...Space Camp! It's quite expensive, but my husband and I decided we could pony up the money as a graduation gift.

I'm writing as a distraction while he's on the way to the airport to catch his plane. I knew I would cry. I knew he would get mad about it. Better to stay behind and write.

First off, let me say that the Space Camp food service people have been pretty good so far. But, having been through this a few other times with other camps, I'm seeing the same patterns of misunderstanding. So here's my list of what I wish camp and school food service organizations would edit out of their communication with parents:

1. "We handle allergies all the time." Yes, we know you do. As responsible parents, we have checked out your camp and verified that you do know how to handle food allergies. But that doesn't mean you can't make a mistake.

We parents also handle allergies every day, and yet most of us (especially those of us who have kids with common allergies) have made mistakes. It can happen to anyone. When you say this, it makes us feel like you're saying "just trust us", and that's not helpful. Working with us as a partner to double-check foods will make everyone feel more secure.

2. "He shouldn't have to worry about the food while he's here." Allergic kids need to be in control of their allergy. That means they need access to food labels. As parents, we follow the FARE guidelines for raising our child to responsibly deal with his food allergies, including teaching him REAL: Read Every and All Labels. That doesn't stop because he's at camp.

Allowing children access to food labels and giving them the opportunity to talk through the preparation of their food doesn't increase worry...it relieves worry. It also teaches self sufficiency.

It's exactly because we trust you that we are giving our children the opportunity to practice asking about ingredients and the preparation of their meals in your safe environment. When they head off to college...or the buffet at the business meeting...they'll have a better idea of how to handle things in those less safe environments.

3. "We know how to handle 'X' allergy." Knowing what a child is allergic to is only the beginning of the conversation. It's also crucial to know how sensitive the child is to the allergen. Some allergic individuals do not worry about cross-contamination because they haven't had issues. Others need strict avoidance.

Additionally, multiple allergies complicate matters. For example, the Space Camp food service used a allergen-friendly mac & cheese that contained no milk. It was a product we had not used before so I immediately checked the label. Hidden 8 ingredients down was "pea protein", something that likely would have send my son to the hospital. To be clear, the menu wasn't set yet for my son; this food was on their standard "dairy-free" menu. But it's easy for food service organizations to get into patterns when dealing with allergies and to create special menus for "peanut allergic", "milk allergic", etc. It can be more difficult (and dangerous) when multiple or less common allergens require custom menus.

I wonder if some of the perceived judgment I've felt during these interactions has to do with these types of misunderstandings. By trying to take away the worry, food service managers are often adding more worry for the parents of food-allergic kids. "We know what we're doing" can sound like "we don't want your input on how to deal with things." Simply changing these common phrases could go a long way toward building rapport.

Our own situation this time is going to be interesting. The menu for the week was not available until Friday, and I have yet to receive labels. That means my son will need to be the one to insist on the label reading. It's time for him to do this without a safety net and he's ready...but that doesn't mean I won't be biting my nails. I know there are already a lot of you out there with bleeding cuticles.

Just remember: camp is an important learning experience, an opportunity to be on one's own, a rite of passage.

Oh, and the kids will have fun, too!


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