Camp Blue Spruce lets kids enjoy meals worry-free

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Cordelia Lehto eats allergy-friendly chips while watching Eric Stachon film a testimonial for Camp Blue Spruce, a camp for children with food allergies. When Louise Tippens sent her son off to Outdoor School in sixth grade, it was only after she had an hourlong talk with the cook and planned his every meal.

Tippens sent her son off with a spreadsheet and note for the cook about what he could and couldn’t eat, and a “safe cooler” of his own foods just in case.

As it happens he didn’t eat the camp’s food — “he was too nervous,” Tippens says.

Tippens is a “food allergy mom” to Riley West, her 14-year-old son who just finished eighth grade at Northeast Portland’s Beaumont Middle School.

Since going into anaphylactic shock when he was a year old after trying a different brand of rice cereal, Riley was diagnosed as allergic to six of the top eight food allergens in the United States: dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. The two other most common are wheat and soy, which Riley can eat.

But what’s vexed Tippens the most hasn’t been what to feed Riley for dinner. It’s been hardest not to worry too much.

“It’s the necessity of balancing being a helicopter parent with giving him the sense of independence and freedom he needs to grow up,” she says.

With his EpiPen (which administers a life-saving shot of epinephrine) and “safe snacks” always nearby, Riley has managed to be a normal soccer-playing, bike-riding kid at Beaumont and Alameda School.

But he’s always at risk of cross-contamination. An estimated 150 to 200 people die in the United States each year from allergic reactions to food.

This summer, Riley and his mom will get one week off from worrying.

Tippens has started a camp for kids with food allergies, called Camp Blue Spruce.

Set for Aug. 18 through 23 at Gales Creek in Banks, the camp will serve 56 kids, ages 9 to 14. It’s the second of its kind in the country. Another camp is offered by a children’s hospital in Dallas.

Blue Spruce is a nonprofit, with a medical team that includes six allergists in Oregon and a board with a dietitian and outdoor educator.

So far the camp has attracted about 20 kids from Oregon, Washington and California.

Tippens doesn’t think it will be hard to find the rest.

More kids have allergies

Food allergies have seen a dramatic rise, from affecting 3.4 percent of U.S. children in 1997 to 5.1 percent in 2011. That’s an 18-percent increase.

Researchers are trying to understand why. The “hygiene hypothesis” is that a “supersanitary” environment weakens the body’s ability to fight back,” says Dr. Linda Muir, a pediatric enterologist at Oregon Health & Science University.

Children raised on farms have lower allergy rates, and developed countries like the United States have higher rates.

Vitamin D deficiency could play a role, as well as the fact that kids are eating more processed food with fewer natural nutrients.

Portland is no stranger to quirky high-maintenance diets, with its plethora of vegan-friendly, gluten-free, lactose-intolerant kids as well as adults.

The TV show “Portlandia” poked fun at the trend in a sketch about an “allergy pride parade.”

“We liked the floats; it was funny,” Tippens says after showing Riley the TV show episode. “But when she keeled over after eating the piece of candy, we didn’t think that was funny. She didn’t read the label!”

Portlanders, with their hypersensitive awareness of food and where it comes from, are generally understanding and supportive of kids with food allergies, allergy moms say.

But the term “food allergy” is sometimes overused. A true food allergy affects the immune system, can be triggered by a small trace of the food, happens suddenly and can be life-threatening.

Intolerances are sensitivities that might cause acid reflux, headaches and other problems, but are generally not severe.

A growing number of people are gluten-intolerant, while a smaller percentage are diagnosed with celiac disease, a serious immune reaction to gluten — a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.

Tippens says it’s always been tricky to explain her family’s dietary needs, but in recent years she’s come up with terms most can understand: “We’re vegan, minus nuts, chicken, pork and turkey. But we’re not gluten-free, thank God.”

Worry-free eating

Camp Blue Spruce will include all the typical summer camp activities: swimming, hiking, arts and crafts, field games and campfires.

Just one thing will be different: the food.

All the camp food will be cooked from scratch, with ingredients that avoid the top eight allergens. The professional cook team will prepare it in the camp kitchen after vigorously scrubbing for any lingering contaminants.

Campers won’t have to be isolated or ask the ubiquitous question: “What’s in that?”

“We’re preparing for kids with anaphylaxis but will take others with sensitivities,” Tippens says. “Anybody’s welcome, but everybody’s safe.”

Tracy Podrabsky, of Southwest Portland, is thrilled at the opportunity to send her 9-year-old son, Dylan.

At just 6 months old, Dylan went to the emergency room in anaphylactic shock after having his first bite of solids.

He soon was diagnosed allergic to dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, and to a lesser extent wheat and soy. “I thought there would be nothing I could ever feed that child,” Podrabsky says.

Allergy kids now have more options than ever when it comes to food. At Blue Spruce they’ll have their own version of s’mores, made with standard marshmallows, chocolate from Enjoy Life (an Illinois-based allergy-friendly snack company) and gluten-free graham crackers.

Podrabsky says Dylan is most excited about sharing meals with friends at camp.

So is Cordelia Lehto, 9-year-old daughter of Tracy Lehto, of Northeast Portland, who has celiac disease. Despite the dizzying array of gluten-free options in Portland, Lehto has found it a challenge to constantly be on the ball.

“Managing (the diet) in the house is a learning process, but you can control it,” she says. “It’s when they don’t eat at home that it gets interesting.”

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