Managing medical concerns at school and on excursions is one of my biggest worries as a teacher! Anaphylaxis is at the top of that list, since a reaction can be almost instant from the allergen and has a cascading effect. This means the longer you leave it, the more difficult it is to recover. However, despite this serious concern, it just means effective strategies need to be in place to ensure preventative measures are the number 1 priority.
In outdoor education, we usually run our programs a considerable distance from emergency medical care. As a result, this adds an additional layer of risk to any trip away. However, rather than worry about this and feel as though it’s too risky to take kids away, my focus has always been on effective preparation and management. This ensures that the chances for an anaphylactic reaction becomes so low, it’s not an issue.
If a student’s medical profile is flagged with an anaphylactic allergy, I’ll phone home and talk to mum and dad. What I need to know when I call is what are the specific triggers? Can they have foods which might contain traces of the allergen? When was the last reaction and what happened? Even though this information might be in the medicals, I prefer the first hand information from parents, so I can effectively brief my staff. I also want to know how well their son or daughter manages their allergy. Are they aware of what can happen? Are they aware of what foods they can and can’t have? This information is vital in helping provide teachers with the best management strategies in the field.
As an example, on one program, I had 247 students out in the field for a week long camp. 11 of the students had allergies which could result in an anaphylactic reaction. Based upon the information from the parents, and the fact some activities were hours away from emergency care, I carefully placed students with the highest needs in the closest proximity to emergency healthcare facilities. In one of the extreme cases, given the number of allergens that the student was affected by, I asked his mum to provide and pack the week’s food in an esky for her son and I provided a clean stove which was specifically for his personal use.
At the end of the day, it about clear channels of communication between parents, teachers and the child. Even though all staff are trained in first aid and anaphylaxis treatment, effective preparation and prevention is far more important. For every activity we do, we go armed with a list of dietary requirements and only shop according to each individual excursion. We don’t plan meals months in advance to save time. It’s about providing the best meal options for each individual group. This way, we’re prepared and able to ensure we provide a safe environment for every child and a wonderful memorable experience away from school.
Food on camps is tricky, but not in the sense that it's hard to do well, there's just so many considerations when you're catering for a diverse school group. Added to this, you often don't know the kids very well. Before camp we do a lot of work preparing for any group and no two camps are the same. To begin with, we look at medical risks and dietary needs. What concerns are there? Do we have kids with allergies? Will some additives make them sick? Will bread and milk cause them to be ill? Can they eat meat? Is it the right sort of meat? Are there any other foods are of concern?
Having catered for so many groups on camps and residential programs, one of the key concerns was that everything has to be ‘normalised.’ Even though I might’ve been catering and cooking for a number of different dietary needs, because they’re kids, I never want anything to stand out or be remarkably different. The last thing I want to hear is a whiney toned, “Why do they get that?!” So if I was cooking burritos for example (which kids love), I'd cook a variation of the burrito for everyone to enjoy. Some have mince, some have chicken, some have tofu, some have beans. Some have tortillas, some have gluten free tortillas, some prefer just to have it on the plate!
Regardless of the mix of ingredients and the time that goes into this, the most important thing from my point of view is every student’s well-being and part of that is making sure they don’t feel ‘different’ a meal times. I’ve been to far to many venues that provide vastly different meals for the kids, making them feel left out and even isolated due to their dietary needs. I won’t have any of that on the camps I run and it’s not unreasonable to expect the same! To be honest, I love buying different foods when I go shopping. I think of all the cool combinations I can do for pizzas, curries and salads just to name a few! Whatever the menu is, I just love wandering around and searching for the best combo to make sure my one meal, can be eaten by all! This does take time, but once you’ve got an idea of a meal plan, each time you have a student with special dietary needs, it’s now only a matter of checking the plan and grabbing the right ingredient!
Ergh! I hear you cry! To be honest I feel the same way about most excursions and the food that's served. It's crap and all the staff try and sneak off for coffee or brunch at any fleeting opportunity.
I've had a lot of camp food over the years and it's varied from 'I think they're trying to poison us' to 'that's really awesome!'
So why is it so inconsistent between venues? Is it because it's hard to cook for so many people? Well... In a word... No! It's actually not! A lot of the time it comes down to total laziness on the part of the caterers. Once the kitchen has a look at dietary needs, that's it! They simply concoct the most average bollocks they can imagine and slop out to everyone. Since you're only there for a few days nobody seems to notice (or care)! But does this make it okay for them to do a rubbish job?
Absolutely not!!! If a venue and program want to have a great reputation for quality, they need to put just as much effort into their food as they do the safety and management of the activities they run the two shouldn't be seen as mutually exclusive. If you serve crap and kids aren't eating, this just adds to the activity risk, so don't do it!
I've owned my own café and been a cook for a residential snow sports training camp in the US, so I know from experience that it's not that hard to cater for large groups with decent food. It just takes a bit of thought and effort!
Cooks need to stop using the excuse that some people don't like spice for making food taste like crap. Too many of them try to race to the bottom to cater for the minority and end up producing nothing but rubbish. This results in food being neither delicious, nor nutritious.
However, my experience hasn't been all bad and I can think of three programs I've worked on, where the quality of the food was awesome! Every meal was simple, flavoursome and there was plenty of it.
So what's your point? Well, my point is don't accept mediocrity when it comes to what's served! Leading up to your excursion, as part of your planning, talk to the catering staff and see what they're going to provide. Make changes if it isn't suitable and provide some honest feedback for what's served. Failing that, leave someone else in charge of the kids and join the rest of the staff at the local Thai restaurant.