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From nut allergies to gluten, Jewish camps and schools struggle with dietary limitations

Local camps strive to serve allergic kids

Heather RobinsonCover Story
Published: 17 June 2011
Schools also promote healthier choices for all students
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Monica Sonbolian, Benjamin Pomeranz, and Ron Manahan wash spinach harvested from the “Garden of Learning” at Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford. The organic garden, where children plant herbs, vegetables, and flowers, was recently dedicated in memory of the school’s former head custodian, Bruno Brenson. photos courtesy SSDS

The New Jersey Y Camps may be the leader among Jewish camps and schools in accommodating children with celiac disease at its Milford, Pa. camp. But local Jewish camps and schools are also striving to better serve youngsters who have food allergies and sensitivities.

Every day school and Jewish camp administrator in North Jersey this reporter spoke with professed to be nut-sensitive (if not nut-free). Some have organized separate, gluten-free menus for youngsters with celiac disease.

And in response to parental concerns, many local Jewish institutions have redesigned menus to promote healthier eating habits.

The New Jersey Y camps have carved out a specialty in serving children with celiac disease. Len Robinson, executive director of the seven overnight Y camps, said that about 20 children who have celiac disease are coming this year and there is “tremendous interest” for next year from families who have never sent their kids with celiac to camp.

“Anything somebody has … we’ll provide a special menu,” Robinson said.

Jewish day camps are also serving kids with celiac disease and other food restrictions.

“We’ll sit with parents [of campers who have celiac disease] and they will see what’s OK and what’s not,” said Rabbi Yehoshua Gold, director of Camp Shalom of the YM-YWHA, a division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton-Passaic. “Parents tend to want to send their children’s food and to have it be stored separately.”

He added that when campers participate in cooking classes, “our instructors make sure we have alternatives for kids who can’t cook with gluten.”

Gold said the Clifton camp is “nut- and seed-free” and can provide alternatives for kids who are lactose intolerant.

He added the camp makes sure to “have fresh salad available every single day.”

Stacy Budkofsky, day camp director of the Neil Klatskin Day Camp at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, said, “We don’t have any campers who have celiac that we know of, but we work case by case” to ensure the safety of campers with food allergies.

She added the camp is “peanut aware” and strives to promote a healthy diet for all campers.

“Some of the fruit we use is organic; it depends on … what is available,” she said. “We always have fruit and salad, and all breads and pastas are whole grain.”

Area schools are also competing to serve food-sensitive kids and promote healthier eating habits.

“It’s healthy, it’s lovely, it’s inviting, and kids do eat their vegetables,” said Ruth Gafni, head of school, Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, of the salad bar her school introduced two years ago. It features “several kinds of lettuce, every veggie and fruit that’s in season, eggs and tuna every day,” she said. After introducing a lunch program that substituted more fruits and vegetables and includes a daily “sushi option,” Gafni said she was struck by how “the kids gravitated toward the veggies and fruit and [were] eating it continually.”

Her school provides a gluten-free menu for children who have celiac disease. It is similar to the regular menu but substitutes bread and pasta with gluten-free varieties, she said.

The school is “absolutely” a “nut-sensitive” zone, and recently enlisted children in planting an organic garden whose produce teachers have started to use in cooking classes.

“This morning we celebrated the first day of the harvest,” Gafni said on Tuesday. “We grew radishes, spinach, lettuce, herbs, and strawberries. It couldn’t have been done without a strong parent push for healthier living.”

Rabbi Berel Leiner, principal of YBH of Passaic-Hillel, stressed that his school, serving grades pre-K through eight, is not only “nut-free” but also discourages soda drinking and bake sales.

“There used to be a lot of selling baked goods but the school and parents were concerned it would take away kids’ appetite” for healthy lunches, including salad and fruit, he said.

Nor are older kids the only ones being targeted for healthier eating. Rona Klein, director of the Shirley and Paul Pintel Nursery School of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. B’nai Israel, says her school is “nut-sensitive” and recently accommodated a child with celiac. “The parents brought in separate food, and we plastered notes all around the room to remind” the staff and other kids not to mix bread products with that child’s food, she said.

In addition, she said, all staff members are trained in using the epi-pen, an anti-inflammatory, in case of an allergic reaction.

In the interest of healthier eating, her school serves kids “either water or apple juice that is watered-down” to decrease its sugar content.

Parents supply snacks in “organized rotations” at the school. Klein says that instead of chips and cookies, she encourages cut-up fruits and vegetables.

“A lot of first-time parents will say, ‘My child is so picky,’” she said. “But by the time they have their second or third they are better at saying, ‘Just eat it.’”

 
 

From nut allergies to gluten, Jewish camps and schools struggle with dietary limitations

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Members of Reform Kutz Camp’s 2011 summer staff enjoy lunch at camp. Courtesy Kutz Camp

No one goes to summer camp for the food. And school lunches? Used to be fried mystery meat and a side of bogus mashed potatoes, if you were lucky.

But that was before the healthy eating movement — and allergies — changed how camps and schools across America think about the food they serve their children.

Dining halls now feature salad bars and fresh produce, even homemade bread. The Reform movement’s Kutz Camp, a leadership camp in Warwick, N.Y., for teenagers, is launching a state-of-the-art dining program this summer that has banned canned vegetables and machine-made drinks and includes a salad bar featuring at least three types of lettuce and 10 vegetarian toppings.

“Parental expectations have changed,” says Paul Reikenbach, head of camping for the Union for Reform Judaism. “They want to have healthy choices and healthy menus. And the kids themselves are much more sophisticated about their food choices.”

Whereas 10 to 15 years ago the battle was for high-quality vegetarian meals, today the preoccupying concern is the ever-increasing array of dietary needs and restrictions.

Nut allergies. Soy allergies. Lactose intolerance. Gluten allergies. Combine them with the vegetarians, the vegans, the organic-only eaters, and the varying levels of kashrut observance, it’s clear that putting food on the table for today’s Jewish children is no simple feat.

At Kutz Camp, the peanut butter is kept in a separate area of the dining hall to avoid cross-contamination.

“It’s our responsibility to keep everyone happy and safe,” says camp director Melissa Frey. “If one teen drops a peanut butter knife into the salad bar, it could be very dangerous for someone else.”

“When I started here 24 years ago, we were just learning about lactose intolerance,” says Anne Tursky, assistant executive director of the New Jersey Y Camps. “We heard about Lactaid and dairy-free ice cream. Then came the peanut allergies eight to 10 years ago. We went from having jars of peanut butter on the table to putting out individual packets.

“Then we had a camper allergic to soy, so we had to start reading every package to see what was in them.”

Most of the push for allergy-free meals comes from worried parents.

Johanna Shlomovich, director of student services at the Ramaz School in Manhattan, meets regularly with a parents’ nutrition committee to go over meal planning for the Orthodox day school’s 1,100 students. She estimates that the school prepares 20 specialized meals daily, ranging from diabetic to dairy-free.

“We are nut-free and sesame-free, to keep all our children safe,” she says. “All our food service workers go to allergy training several times a year. They check all the packaging.”

Finding kosher-certified foods that meet the varied health concerns is an ongoing challenge, Shlomovich says. Ramaz could not find a kosher brand of granola that was also free of nuts and sesame, so now the school prepares its own.

And parental demands keep growing.

“I have a couple of parents pushing for everything to be organic,” Shlomovich says. “But that’s cost prohibitive. It’s always a balance between budget and the parents’ nutritional demands.”

Now there is both greater awareness of allergies and food intolerances, and the actual occurrence of those allergies also is on the rise, experts say.

Anita Redner, the head nurse for the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston for 19 years, says the number of allergies she sees has skyrocketed along with the incidence of asthma.

“All the medical literature is pretty clear that there’s been an actual rise in real allergies and in asthma,” she says. “I don’t think there’s any doctor that would say otherwise.”

Redner’s school has one student with diabetes, several with gluten allergies, and others with similar dietary restrictions. The school does not have a regular lunch program, but allows parents to opt in or out of Friday pizza lunch and infrequent meals brought in from a kosher Chinese restaurant.

“We provide the parents with all the information they need about the vendors, and the responsibility is on them to opt in or have the kids bring their own lunch,” she says.

One of the more serious allergies is to gluten, a protein found in such grains as wheat, barley, and rye. Many Americans today tout the supposed health benefits of a gluten-free diet, but for sufferers of celiac disease — an estimated 1 percent of the population — avoiding gluten is not an issue of choice. Even a tiny amount of gluten can trigger a severe autoimmune reaction and sometimes long-term health problems.

Camp and school directors have become hyper-aware of the needs of children with celiac disease. Most ask parents to provide their own food for the children, or in the case of overnight camp, pay for the cost of procuring gluten-free food. But that’s expensive and tends to isolate the affected children.

At some institutions, inclusivity trumps inconvenience. The early childhood classes at Ramaz bake once a week, Shlomovich says, and if even one child is sensitive to gluten, the entire class will bake gluten-free muffins. The same is true of other food allergies.

“Every child must be able to take part and enjoy,” she says.

Kutz Camp always has a handful of campers with gluten sensitivity, according to Frey. Until this year, the camp would buy special food for them. This summer, as part of the new dining program, the entire camp is moving to gluten-free pastas, and the chef will begin baking spelt-based and rice breads.

“We’re an environment based on Jewish ethics and Jewish values,” Frey tells JTA. “We want camp to be a place where no one feels isolated.”

For this summer, the New Jersey Y Camps has partnered with the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University Medical Center to develop a gluten-free summer sleepaway program at its camp in Milford, Pa. A dedicated kosher and gluten-free kitchen will provide meals and snacks for children and teens with celiac and Type 1 diabetes.

Like other camps, the Y camps always catered to celiac sufferers, says director Len Robinson, but did so by requiring parents to buy their child’s food, which he estimates cost about $1,000 a summer. Now these children will stand in line with everyone else instead of waiting at the table for special meals that often arrived late or cold.

The new program was inspired by Pninit Cole, a Long Island mother and celiac activist whose child was diagnosed with celiac disease three years ago.

“Even with her in the camp, I didn’t fully understand the issue,” Robinson acknowledges. “There are so many other things we have to watch.”

The new kitchen cost $30,000, but the parents won’t pay more in camp fees. It’s part of what a Jewish camp or school should be offering, Robinson says.

Cole agrees. Along with the food has come a change in atmosphere, she notes, where children and staffers learn about dietary needs, healthy eating, and how to respect each other’s preferences and restrictions.

“This is the first such program I know of in the country,” Cole says. “I hope it will become the industry standard, so all kids can have a fun, safe summer.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Local camps balance safety and fun

Jewish camps review safety measures in wake of Ramah Darom tragedy

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Lake safety training is a regular focus during staff week at Union for Reform Judaism Crane Lake Camp in West Stockbridge, Mass. Union for Reform Judaism

SAN FRANCISCO – It’s the nightmare of every parent — and every teacher, youth leader and camp director.

When a child dies in an accident while in someone else’s care, the agonizing questions begin: Could we have done anything different? Were all the proper procedures followed? And above all, how can we keep children safe while still ensuring that they have a fun and meaningful summer?

The Jewish camping community is asking such questions with the death of Andrew Silvershein, 16, of Davie, Fla., who drowned June 19 on a whitewater rafting trip during his first week at Ramah Darom, a Conservative movement summer camp in northern Georgia.

“For all of us in the business, this is the No. 1 thing on our mind,” said Len Robinson, executive director of the New Jersey Y Camps. “At the end of the summer, when the last child is delivered home to their parents, you feel the weight of the world lifted from your shoulders. Unfortunately, things happen.”

Everything was done correctly in this case, camp professionals say: A trained guide was in every raft, and every child was wearing a life jacket and helmet.

The current was strong, the raft overturned and Silvershein was wedged under a rock. He was pulled out, but it was too late. He was buried three days later.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Andrew’s family and friends, and with the Ramah Darom community,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. “It’s clear that camps are tremendously safe places. This was just a senseless and tragic accident.”

Nevertheless, Jewish camp directors have been reviewing their safety measures.

Rabbi Paul Resnick, the longtime director of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, said his staff immediately began re-checking the camp’s standards to make sure that they comply with the regulations of the American Camping Association, as well as of the New York Board of Health. And this summer’s programming does not include whitewater rafting.

“We certainly believe in outdoor adventure, and although there is always some risk, we believe we have a very well-trained staff, use reliable trip providers and that we are following all safety protocols,” Resnick said, adding that he also offers his sympathy and support to the Ramah Darom community.

Many camps had not started their seasons and were still running training weeks for counselors and other staff when the Darom tragedy occurred. Safety, which is always stressed, camp directors say, was underlined yet again.

Although many families of Ramah Darom campers were in touch right after the accident, some asking about particular safety protocols, Rabbi Mitch Cohen, director of the National Ramah Commission, says that none withdrew their children or canceled their registration.

National Ramah is the umbrella organization for eight overnight camps, three day camps and Ramah Israel programs.

Directors of other Jewish camps say the number of calls from parents concerned about the safety of their children has not increased. Those calls come anyway, they say.

“Parents are more involved in asking questions today,” said Robinson, who has been in the Jewish camping business for 45 years. “Industry standards have remained at the same high level since the 1970s. It’s the parents’ concerns that have changed.”

Some practical changes have been made in the past few decades, he says. Diving boards were taken out of camp pools, for example, for fear of accidents. Campers now wear life jackets, not just life belts, while water skiing. And lifesaving and rescue techniques are constantly being upgraded as knowledge increases.

Even the materials used in some equipment is different. Life jackets used to be filled with a material that became unusable if waterlogged, Robinson says. The newer jackets are more resistant, and buckle easier and more securely.

“We have better and stronger materials today, some from the space program,” he said, mentioning nylon as one NASA-developed material now in wide use.

Paul Reichenbach, the director of camping and Israel programs for the Union for Reform Judaism, says the union has made nearly $750,000 worth of security upgrades to its camps over the past decade. URJ camps have new fences and 24-hour guards, and have installed gates and security lights. An Israeli security firm runs training sessions for its camp directors and staff every summer to teach them how to evacuate buildings and look for a missing child, as well as other emergency tactics.

“We have never had a serious incursion, but it’s what we do for the health and security of our children,” he said.

The URJ isn’t alone, Reichenbach stresses.

“Lots of camps have significantly upgraded their security,” he said. “Things have changed. It’s part of our commitment to families and to ourselves.”

Still, he says, children are killed virtually every summer, whether in Jewish or non-Jewish programs. In 2002, a six-year-old girl drowned at a JCC summer camp in northern California. In 2009, a 14-year-old girl was killed at a JCC camp in Pennsylvania when a tree fell on her tent.

“It’s the reality we live in,” Reichenbach said. “We have active programs. It doesn’t mean you stop swimming. After a tragedy you redouble your protocols and ask yourself the tough questions: Are we doing everything we can?”

Ramah Darom has “incredibly high standards,” Reichenbach noted, and they work with “an excellent company” to ensure that they get the best safety training and preparation.

Transparency is key, say those interviewed. Parents want to know the risks, how safety will be ensured and how emergencies will be handled.

Immediately after the Silvershein tragedy, Ramah Darom staff alerted the families of the other campers by e-mail and phone. Grief counselors were called in to supplement the camp’s rabbis and social workers as part of an ongoing healing process.

Fingerman says he is “tremendously impressed” with how Ramah Darom has been handling the tragedy, and with how the rest of the camping world has reached out to the camp.

More than 800 mourners attended the funeral, he notes, and many of them hugged the camp director and board chair to show support, even as they were trying to support the grieving family.

Instead of turning away from the camp, the Silversheins have created a scholarship fund in Andrew’s memory, so other Jewish children can attend camp. And their daughter, Andrew’s younger sister, is expected to return to Ramah Darom after the shiva, or week of mourning.

“The family stated how important camp was in his life,” Fingerman said. “They said he’d never want this tragedy to destroy the joy other kids could have at camp.”

JTA Wire Service

Julie Wiener of The New York Jewish Week contributed to this report.

 
 
 
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