Food Allergies and Dietary Differences in the Wilderness

Posted by Ed on August 17, 2022

Ed Coombs 102In addition to managing the equipment needs for the Evoke, I also coordinate the dietary needs for our participants and staff. I follow a similar philosophy that I use for our gear, in that we want the focus to be on clinical growth, and not that someone’s gear doesn’t work, or that the food doesn’t work. We pick food that packs well, provides the necessary calories and nutrition, and tastes good. All dietary needs and adjustments are discussed by the Clinical, Field, and Medical departments so that we cover all the bases.

To lay the groundwork for Evoke's approach to food, here are some of the basics:

  • Restock goes out on Tuesdays and Fridays (unless there is a holiday schedule that precludes that). There are minor differences between the Tuesday (start of the staff shift) and Friday (Meat night!) restocks.
  • Staples are essentially the same each delivery: Items in the coolers include cheese, fruit and vegetables, meat or tofu, and breads (tortillas, pitas, and bagels).
  • Items in the bins/totes include beans, rice, granola, oats, quinoa, pasta, canned tomatoes, gorp (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts/trail mix), peanut butter, powdered milk, summer sausage(T), and tuna/chicken packets. Also included are spice kits which consist of Bragg’s (soy sauce), Sriracha, spice packets, olive oil, parmesan cheese, and electrolyte tabs (Nuuns).
  • And finally are the toiletries (the “wet and dry,” “fresh and clean,” or “the smelly”) which includes trash bags, bio-bags, sunblock, soap, toilet paper, baby wipes, vinyl gloves, and ziplock bags.

When we think of common food allergies, there are the standard seven: eggs, dairy, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, wheat/gluten, and soy. We’ve also worked with stone-fruit (peaches, mangos, apricots, etc.), sesame, and other allergies. Sometimes a client might have multiple allergies. For instance, one client was allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, potatoes, chicken/poultry/egg, dairy, sesame seeds, fish, barley, and wheat/gluten. Another multi-allergy client was allergic to fish, shellfish, dairy, walnuts, pecans, cashews, hazelnuts, pistachios, and sesame. Whatever the allergy is, we find a way to make it work and keep people fed.

There is also a spectrum of allergic reactions from anaphylactic/epinephrine-use to a mildly itchy mouth, or as one of my wife’s co-workers said, “Peaches are spicy” (i.e., he has a mild stone-fruit allergy). The level of reaction and the client’s ability to manage food needs factor into the decision if the food allergy can be managed on an individual basis, or if a full-group ban is warranted. A full-group ban is most commonly seen for severe tree nut or peanut allergies.

Dietary differences/preferences
Common preferences include vegetarian and vegan diets, and sometimes pescatarian (fish), or paleo. There are fairly simple work-arounds for these diets, and these clients generally cook and eat with their peers, which is one of the goals for the group culture. Common replacements for some of these diets include powdered hummus and tofu for protein, and powdered soy milk and vegan cheese for dairy.

Religious needs
We regularly work with kosher clients, and have handled Orthodox observance, even during Passover (Pesach). As Passover traditions can vary, we tailor client needs with input from families and rabbinical consultations for both ceremony and food needs (KLP/Kosher for Passover). Most of our kosher food comes from kosher markets in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or specialty online retailers. And, yes, we’ve worked with clients who’ve needed Kosher Vegetarian/Gluten Free/Dairy Free options. Kosher clients generally cook on their own with a double stove/pot/utensil set-up.

Seasonal fruit and vegetable options 
When I started working in the field back in 2002, we didn’t have much variety for fruit or vegetables. Fruit was always apples, oranges, and bananas, with an occasional watermelon in the summer. Vegetables were onions, peppers, garlic, carrots, and zucchini. While there isn’t anything wrong with these, and they are the backbone of most programs, it can get monotonous. Most groups call out additional fruit and veg throughout the week (Monday, Thursday, and Saturday), and I try to provide fruit that is in season, and when possible and practical, local and organic. Fruit options have included peaches, apricots, nectarines, plums, mangos, mandarin oranges, pineapples, pears, and cantaloupe. Vegetable options have included asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, celery, green beans, yellow crook-neck squash, spaghetti squash, cabbage, potatoes, and beets.

While every meal might not look “Instagram-worthy” (though they sometimes are), groups have all the basics that they need, and can be very creative. Food and cooking are important to group culture and cohesion, and I’m happy to support our groups with all the options that I can.


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