Teal Pumpkin Project brings safe treats to kids with food allergies

By: Mary Beth Almond | C&G Newspapers | Published October 10, 2017

METRO DETROIT — Halloween is a scary time of year, with ghosts and goblins lurking around every corner, but for the millions of families managing food allergies, the most frightening thing about it is often the treats.

“What people might not know is that 1 in 13 kids in the U.S. have a food allergy,” said Nancy Gregory, senior director of communications at Food Allergy Research and Education.

In fact, Gregory said, a food allergy reaction — which can range from mild to severe, including the potentially life-threatening condition anaphylaxis — sends someone to the emergency room every three minutes in the U.S.

Lisa Rutter, founder of the No Nuts Mom Group of Michigan, said trick-or-treating can be really dangerous for children, especially because each person’s reaction to a given food is different. While any food can cause an adverse reaction, eight types of foods account for about 90 percent of all reactions — eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat and soy — many of which are found in popular Halloween candy.

Rutter’s son, Evan, who has a life-threatening allergy to peanuts and tree nuts, has reacted to eating otherwise safe candy that was in the same bag or bowl as something that included his allergens.

“Some kids are more sensitive than others. We don’t pick out the (safe) candy — I know some people do that ... but I don’t feel comfortable letting him eat something that has been in the same bucket with a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, just because he has had reactions to things like that. People don’t understand how sensitive some kids can be, and everyone is different,” she said.

To promote the inclusion of all children in the trick-or-treat tradition of Halloween, FARE is asking people to participate in the Teal Pumpkin Project.

“On a day like Halloween, when the focus is on candy — so much of which contains the major food allergens — a teal pumpkin signifies to trick-or-treaters that your home has nonfood treats available, either in addition to or instead of regular candies that you might expect,” Gregory said. “Because kids can be allergic to anything, nonfood treats are something that can be enjoyed by anybody.”

Gregory said the Teal Pumpkin Project began with one mom and her support group in Tennessee. Becky Basalone, leader of the Food Allergy Community of East Tennessee, or FACET, had an idea to paint a pumpkin teal — the color of food allergy awareness — to promote inclusion of all trick-or-treaters by providing them with a nonfood treat option. In 2014, FARE adopted her food allergy awareness pumpkin into a national initiative for more reach.

“She was really happy to work with us to help make it more successful. We called it the Teal Pumpkin Project, and since then we have gotten overwhelmingly positive feedback, both in and outside of the food allergy community, because really, the purpose of the campaign — to help make Halloween happier and safer for all kids — is something that everybody can embrace,” Gregory said.

Those who want to participate are asked to place a teal pumpkin or a free printable sign available at www.tealpumpkinproject.org in front of their home to indicate that they have nonfood treats available.

Nonfood treats are widely available, inexpensive, can be reused and are really popular among kids, according to Gregory.

“We have a list of suggested nonfood treats on our website, but they range from things like glow sticks to stickers to bouncy balls and pencils and things like that that kids can enjoy,” she said.  “It’s a very simple gesture that really has a lot of impact for kids with food allergies, as well as kids with other dietary restrictions that might not be able to enjoy the candy that is traditionally given.”

Rutter said many people still aren’t aware of the Teal Pumpkin Project.

“The idea is you put a teal pumpkin out — and some people will put a sign up too, on their window, because some people don’t understand. I’ve had some people think it was for ovarian cancer because it is the same color, so a sign helps, especially if they are confused about it,” she explained. “Some people think it means you have to get rid of candy, and that is not what we are trying to do. We just want everyone to be included, so it is nice to offer that.”

This year, Rutter is handing out peanut- and tree nut-free candy as well as nonfood items on Halloween. She is picking up her nonfood treats from Walmart, which has partnered with the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Connection Team to offer safe toys like slime and stretchy eyeballs, headbands, bubbles and bouncy balls. All safe items can be easily found at Walmart by searching for FAACT’s Non-Food Fun Teal Ghost logo on display cases and packaging.

“I have Halloween cups and I’ll put a little goodie bag around them, and then I will fill them with things like spider rings, bouncy balls and slinkies. I usually have leftovers, so I will buy a stash and I will usually have it for a couple of years,” she said.

Shanen Sievers, a food allergy mom and support group leader for the No Nuts Mom Group of Michigan, said she always has a teal pumpkin out to let trick-or-treaters know she has toys available.

“In our neighborhood, there are not a ton (of) people that have the teal pumpkins yet, but there are four or five people. Every year it seems like a new family will have a teal pumpkin on their front porch, so if my kids go trick-or-treating, they know they can ask for a toy,” she said.

Sievers said the Teal Pumpkin Project has helped reduce the frustration and tears that often come with trick-or-treating for kids with food allergies.

“The first few years it was so heartbreaking, just the tears of the fact that they can’t have this candy. You witness how that is kind of sad,” she said. “So for me, I’m so elated when I see a teal pumpkin, because they are being inclusive.”

For more information, visit tealpumpkinproject.org.