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How to make your pack food-allergy friendly for all boys

BOB SMITH OF COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., took his second-grade son, Morgan, to a Cub Scout signup night in 2003. When he mentioned Morgan’s severe food allergies, a pack volunteer surprised him by saying Morgan couldn’t join Scouts because the pack didn’t have a way to keep him safe. Undeterred, Smith started his own den, and he and his wife, Nicole, began educating other pack families about food allergies.

Stephanie Marcinkowski became a den leader in Fox Chase, Pa., for much the same reason as Bob Smith. When her second son, William, who has food allergies, followed his older brother, Walter, into Cub Scouting, she got drafted as an assistant Tiger leader. (She recently stepped down as pack committee chair and now serves as pack trainer.)

How can your pack accommodate boys with severe food allergies? Scouting asked Marcinkowski and Bob and Nicole Smith for their advice.

Ask — Don’t Assume
Information is essential. While some parents are passionate advocates for their kids, others won’t mention food allergies unless you ask. “You almost have to pull it out of the parents at the pack level,” says Marcinkowski, who has sometimes heard about a Scout’s food allergies months after he joined.

One reason for parents’ reticence is that they don’t want their sons to be singled out. Another is that they may not realize that food is involved in den meetings. “They think, ‘Why would my child be eating anything at Cub Scouts? There’s no need for me to be concerned,’ ” Bob Smith says.

Part B of the Annual Health and Medical Record (No. 680-001) includes space to list allergies to food, medications, plants, and insect bites or stings, so it’s a good place to start gathering information. Scouts with severe allergies may also have a food allergy action plan that their parents can share with you; such plans are required under federal law for students whose allergies are serious enough to be considered disabilities. “That health care plan is very important to any family with food allergies because it lists the symptoms and whether or not the child should immediately receive an EpiPen or should just receive a Benadryl,” Nicole Smith says.

Once you have allergy information, you need to act on it. Marcinkowski recommends recruiting one parent to review forms, follow up with the families and share relevant details with den leaders. The ideal candidate would be someone with a health care background or an awareness of food allergies.

Think Safety
The easiest way to avoid problems with food allergies is to ban food from den meetings, which Bob Smith did. “It wasn’t something they needed, since the meetings were only about an hour long,” he says. “Plus, I’d get them really involved in other things than worrying about food.”

When you do have treats, you could establish a separate station for foods you know are safe or that have ingredient labels. That’s what Marcinkowski’s pack does. “Home-baked goods go in one area. Kids who have food allergies may choose not to eat those because they’re not sure how they were prepared,” she says.

On outings, you could let boys with allergies bring separate food or enforce strict rules on what foods can be brought. Sanitation and avoiding cross-contamination are important as well. If peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are on the menu, buy squeezable jelly bottles so no one has to dip a dirty knife into the jelly.

Keep in mind that food allergies aren’t limited to meal and snack times. For example, some dens make bird feeders by smearing peanut butter on pinecones, an activity that is not safe for a boy with severe peanut allergies. Fortunately, there are plenty of other crafts to choose from.

Let ‘No’ Mean No
Marcinkowski emphasizes that boys should never be pressured to eat something they want to avoid. “If the child says ‘no,’ that’s where it ends,” she says. “If you think maybe the child is just saying ‘no’ because he doesn’t feel like eating, find an adult leader who knows better or find that child’s parent.”

She remembers a time at William’s preschool when an adult tried to distribute chocolate milk at the milk-free table. The kids at the table kept resisting until a teacher had to intervene. “My son was better protected by his 4- and 5-year-old peers than he was by the adults,” she says. “It was a very powerful experience.”

Friends were also among Morgan Smith’s best advocates. “All the boys in his den were well-aware of Morgan’s food allergies,” Bob Smith says. “They were kind of protective of him at a certain level.”

That protection continued once Morgan became a Boy Scout. On hikes, for example, Scouts who had brought trail mix that contained peanuts would intentionally hike at the end of the line and alert Morgan to what they were eating. (Why not ban peanuts? “We weren’t advocates of saying you can’t bring nuts,” Bob Smith says. “We were advocates of education.”)

Better as They Age
Morgan’s experience also demonstrates that dealing with allergies can be easier at the Boy Scout level since older boys are better able to advocate for themselves. Even before he moved into Boy Scouting, Morgan taught his new leaders about food allergies and taught them how to use an EpiPen. Now an Eagle Scout, he has presented at food-allergy conferences and helped other Scouts learn to manage their allergies in Scouting.