For most children, trick-or-treating is about dressing up and getting candy. For 4-year-old Mia Taggart of Kansas City, North, it also is about staying alive.
Mia has nut and egg allergies, and her reactions can be unpredictable and severe. If she eats a treat with those ingredients — or even one manufactured in a plant where they’re present — she could break out in hives, have a coughing fit or stop breathing.
That’s why her mother, Christina Taggart, supports the Teal Pumpkin Project, a new Halloween tradition spearheaded by the Food Allergy Research & Education group of McLean, Va.
“We are not looking to remove candy from Halloween,” said Veronica LaFemina, a spokeswoman for the project. “We’re simply asking people to provide nonfood treats, too, such as glow bracelets, stickers, spider rings or Halloween-themed pencils or puzzles to ensure that every trick-or-treater who comes to their door can leave with a smile and a treat they can enjoy.”
After learning about the project on Facebook, Taggart, a middle school counselor, and her husband, Jay, painted a pumpkin teal — the color of food-allergy awareness — and set it outside their home as a signal to trick-or-treaters.
“That way any parent of a child with a severe allergy can know I have safe treats available,” she said. “On Halloween, kids get excited about candy. But they get equally excited about a glow stick, a bouncy ball or a spider ring. This is just an opportunity for Mia to feel included just like everyone else.”
One in 13 children in the United States has food allergies, she said. And between 1997 and 2011, there was a 50 percent increase in the number of children diagnosed with food allergies in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mia had her first severe allergic reaction to a small peanut butter-filled cracker when she was 15 months old. She broke out in hives around her mouth and began coughing. Testing at Children’s Mercy Hospital revealed her allergies. She can eat some candies, such as Skittles, Jolly Ranchers and Twizzlers. Her 7-year-old brother, Brady, does not have food allergies.
“He’s a very good helper,” his mother said. “He gladly takes anything in Mia’s little pumpkin basket that she cannot eat.”
The Teal Pumpkin Project is the brainchild of Becky Basalone, head of a food-allergy support group in Knoxville, Tenn. After the national food allergy group became involved, her idea spread quickly.
“We launched the campaign on Facebook three weeks ago and have been spreading the word through social media,” LaFemina said. “Since our launch, our first two posts have reached 5.5 million people and have been shared more than 55,000 times. We now have people participating in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Canada, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Australia.”
Jay Portnoy, director of allergy at Children’s Mercy Hospital, had not heard about the Teal Pumpkin Project. But he supports it.
“Sounds pretty cool,” he said. “They can go trick-or-treating, and they don’t have to be afraid of getting something that could cause an allergic reaction. And for kids who don’t have food allergies, it gives them an alternative to eating a lot of junk food.”
The group is dedicated to spreading the message until everyone knows about it.
“Food allergies can be life-threatening,” LaFemina said. “And when we’re talking about one in 13 children with a food allergy, that equates to two children in every classroom, and at least one in every neighborhood. We are so proud to bring this to a national and even international audience. We hope it becomes a tradition for many years to come.”
How to participate
In the Teal Pumpkin Project, you signal trick-or-treaters that you have nonfood goodies to share by placing a teal pumpkin outside your door. You can find small bottles of paint at craft or hardware stores. Or, if you don’t have time to paint, you can download a free, printable sign from foodallergy.org.