Food Allergies & Vacation Bible School

Vacation Bible School.  It's a summer tradition for many families.  I remember volunteering as a high school and college student, and looking forward to the day when I would have my own children in attendance. 

When I had my first baby, we were just eight months in before we learned that our child had severe anaphylactic food allergies and that many childhood traditions were not going to be as easy as we had hoped.  

When my son was finally old enough to enter the doors of that high energy, week-long intense and fun-packed VBS at age 3...there I was right beside him.  Snacks packed. Ready to allergy style.  

Year after year I attended VBS alongside my kids for the sake of food allergy safety.  The first year I volunteered in crafts, but that was too distracting when my main goal was to keep my kiddo safe.  The next couple years I volunteered for nothing besides sitting in the hallway and making sure my son was ok with all the random food, craft supplies, and the dreaded M&M tag game out in 100 degree heat...WITH A MILK ALLERGY.  That didn't go so well.  

After the year of melty M&M tag, I decided to step up and volunteer to do all the snacks and food for the VBS attendees.  My biggest year was about 100 kids to feed plus parents and grandparents on picnic day.  This is where I really found my groove.  My child was a little older (ages 6-10), I was on campus in case of emergency, and I was able to serve... especially allergy parents and children by making sure ALL the food and crafts were safe.  I was sort of the "allergy coordinator", if you will.  The church gave me a budget, and I did all the shopping and food prep with a small team to help in the kitchen. 

With all that said, I now have some tips for how to safely run and attend VBS with food allergies.  :)

Tips for Vacation Bible School Allergy Coordinators

Know what allergens you need to avoid.  Get this information on registration forms.

Find out if the allergic children carry epi-pens.  Again, get this info on their forms.

Find out if allergy children will have parents on campus as volunteers or attendees.

If allergy parents are not all on site, have one allergy coordinator on site at all times.

Allergy coordinator should talk to allergy parents and learn how to use epi-pen's and have each family's allergy action plan in writing.

Mark food allergies & parent phone numbers CLEARLY on children's name tags.

Make sure all volunteers know food allergies are marked on name tags.

Have volunteers notify allergy coordinator of any concerns in class with snacks or supplies that they think may not be safe.  Coordinator can contact parents if need be.

Decide with allergy parents if safe snacks will be sent in or if they want to offer help making the event allergy-friendly.  

If safe snacks are brought in by allergy children, have coordinator keep them until they are needed.

Allergy coordinator should make sure hands are washed by all before and after snack time, and should let the allergy children open and handle their own snacks after washing their hands.  If help is needed, allergy coordinator should wash hands first to avoid contaminating the safe food.  Soap & water is best.  Hand wipes are second best. Sanitizing gel does not remove food proteins...avoid!

Wipe down surfaces at the end of each day with wipes or e-cloth

Allergy-Safe Foods for Vacation Bible School
This will mostly depend on the food allergens that need to be avoided.  Milk, peanut, and tree nut are the most common in my experience.  But egg, wheat, and soy may also need to be avoided.  Thinking "whole foods" is often the best way to go.  Here are some ideas you can run by parents:

Trail mix with Chex cereal, raisins, and Skittles
Fruit Strips or Twists
Allergy-Free Cookies (Enjoy Life or Aldi Brand)
Plain Potato Chips
Yum Earth Suckers or Dum Dum Suckers
Individual Juice Boxes
Individual Water Bottles

Ask parents for the safest brands to use and save packaging so parents can read the labels. 

Ask parents if they want to come in and help prep food, setting their own child's foods safely to the side.  If they don't come help, make sure hands are washed before prepping and still store safe portions away for food allergy children...covered and labeled so nobody touches them.

If there is a lunch served, ask parents what meat works best.  It may be Hebrew National Hot Dogs, a hamburger patty made at home, or a sandwich they pack on their own.  If grilling is involved, invite the allergy parents to bring a safe hot dog or burger wrapped and marked in foil to safely cook covered on the grill.  

Safe buns are hard to find.  Parents may want to bring their own or skip having a bun.

Let us know if you have questions.
This blog post is years late in the making, I've had pictures ready to go forever!  Thanks to the friend who asked me to post this information.  It finally gave me the kick in the pants that I needed.  

Now on the other side of this with children almost too old for VBS, I'm happy to share our experiences and what worked for us safely getting through this summer milestone over the years.  

If you have any questions, just leave a comment on this post, and we will be happy to help.

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