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

Local camps strive to serve allergic kids

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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.'”

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