When it comes to your travel or outdoor education program, you’re guaranteed to encounter participants with various needs, preferences, and restrictions. As a leader and manager of multi-day programs, not only are you responsible for ensuring that delicious food is available, the quantity of food meets needs without waste, and that meals can be easily prepared; you’re also responsible for aligning your food strategy with your risk management plan to prevent outbreaks or allergic reactions. 

What incredible pressure! 

To alleviate the strain and stress associated, there are some basic risk management elements that you can include in your process to be mindful of allergies and dietary restrictions. In this article, we’ll outline some food safety basics and provide industry-specific guidelines for including dietary concerns into your plan. 

Understanding the Differences 

First, it’s important to note that dietary restrictions and allergies are separate issues. 

“Medically, I think it’s very important to differentiate legitimate food allergies that cause true allergic reactions from ‘restrictions,’” says Dr. Josh Dubansky, MD, Medical Director of Cornerstone Safety Group. “True allergies are of the utmost concern to programs and it’s important to distinguish which allergies and conditions should be elevated to a medical importance in your risk management plan.” 

Preparation and expectation setting with participants is key. Obtaining the right level of detailed information about the allergy or dietary restriction can help you identify what to include in leaders’ training materials and in your organization’s risk management plan. 

Preparation Prior to Travel 

Questions in the enrollment and onboarding process should be phrased appropriately to help you determine the condition and severity of the condition. Include: 

  • Do you have any dietary restrictions?
    • Please explain further. (This is where you’d expect participants to include information about why this restriction is in place and their definition. For example, is the restriction religious, personal preference, or for ethical reasons? Does being “vegetarian” include an aversion to fish or eggs for this individual?)
  • Do you have any food allergies?
    • What is the reaction to this allergen? (What should your leaders be on the lookout for in a worse-case scenario? Anaphylaxis, swelling, hives, etc.)
    • Is the allergy life-threatening?
    • Do you carry an epi-pen in the event of an exposure?
    • Have you traveled internationally before? Were there any complications?
    • What should we know about your food allergy reaction(s)? How do you treat them?
    • Please explain further. (Offer your participants free space to provide details or additional information - remember that allergies can be very individual!)

These questions should be asked in Health History Forms, listed in your Terms & Conditions (known limitations need to be shared with participants and their families (for minors) creating informed consent), and as part of the participant screening process. 

Once you’ve collected the information, the next step is to identify what you can accommodate in your chosen environment. The reality is that many destination cultures (particularly for international programming), don’t understand food allergies or the severity of these sensitivities. It’s your responsibility to communicate this cross-culturally, on behalf of participants. 

“How you navigate allergies speaks directly to an organization’s duty of care,” says Dave Dennis, Executive Director of Cornerstone Safety Group. “If organizations allow a participant with severe allergies to travel on a program where local conditions don’t align with the traveler’s needs, this can result in claims of negligence - particularly for those supervising minors.”  

Managing Allergies during Travel 

You can’t be prepared for every potentiality. Assume participants also may not be aware of a food allergy or may encounter their first reaction in a series of “first” as they travel in a new environment.  

As part of your risk management and crisis response plan, it’s important to have access to a medical professional who can issue epinephrine prescriptions for your staff to use in the event of an emergency. This medical professional should also administer training for the individuals responsible for participants, to ensure these medications are used appropriately. You never know when this extra effort could save the life of a participant! 

Additionally, organizations should identify where students will come into contact with food throughout the experience and ensure the cooking teams understand the concepts of cross-contaminations, reactions, and the impact on wellbeing for both participants and staff. 

Here are some of the staff that may require this additional training or support: 

  • Program Leaders or Field Staff
  • Homestay families or Hosted Visits
  • Hotels, accommodations, and event hosts
  • Cooking teams or vendor-led activities involving food

Although speaking with all your vendors and outfitters may seem like going the extra mile, the reality is that avoiding these discussions comes with tremendous risk on travel programs. 

During travel, you should also be transparent with your participant about their responsibility for monitoring their health during travel. They are, in fact, participants in their own risk management plan! 

Says Dave Dennis, “Consider asking participants and leaders to carry a food allergy card (in the languages you’re likely to encounter) that outlines the allergic reaction and triggers including cross-contamination.” 

Allergy cards can help save participants and staff a lot of headache during their travels, mitigating your risk of contamination and allowing the participant to have a more “normal” integration into the group’s environment. 

In Conclusion 

At the end of the day, travel always creates inherent risk. However, as a travel organization, it’s your responsibility to take the steps necessary to mitigate this risk for your participants and staff. 

Be sure to communicate. Transparency and direct communication with those affected by allergies or restrictions is the best preparation to ensure you’re meeting the needs of your participants. 

Be sure to train appropriately. In your training of all staff and vendors, be sure to include direct assessment of risk and tools to manage allergies and restrictions. For field staff and food preparers, consider adding food safety, epinephrine use, and cross-contamination topics into your training curriculum. 

Finally, it’s crucial that your risk management plan includes collecting, screening, and evaluating management plans for every individual participant in order to best serve your travelers and your host communities. Even better, including a tool, such as WholeSum, to plan ahead and allow multiple leaders/managers to monitor the dietary needs of participants can help to identify needs early on, so that your participants and staff can get back to their transformative travel experiences!


About the Authors 

At Cornerstone Safety Group, we provide peace of mind to business owners, leaders, and those responsible for managing the risks of travel and experiential education. As the only organization of its kind, we offer all-inclusive membership services and comprehensive expertise in risk management, mental health and medical fields. Learn more about our story at cornerstonesafetygroup.org