Over the years, I’ve earned myself somewhat of a... reputation. As a food allergy mom, I’ve been a vocal advocate of the Teal Pumpkin Project. This awareness initiative, promoted by Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), encourages homes to have non-food items such as little toys or trinkets available in a separate bowl for trick-or-treaters. This way, children with food allergies or other conditions can have a safe and inclusive Halloween.
As each October rolls around, I kick into mom-advocate mode — Halloween edition. I’ve presented at bible studies and mothers’ groups. I’ve gone into classrooms to teach lessons and facilitate Teal Pumpkin activities. I’ve run a fundraiser. With the help of my children, I’ve hosted Teal Pumpkin craft days at our home and canvassed our neighborhoods with letters, flyers and signs to spread the word and invite others to participate. Perhaps, it seems over the top to some, but my passion for this project is for good reason. Here’s the story behind the Halloween that sparked it all.
For the first few years after my son's diagnosis of multiple severe food allergies, trick-or-treating wasn’t difficult to manage because he was so young. All that changed the year Bence was three. He had caught on to the hype and was all-in. That year Bence was going to be Marshall from the cartoon show Paw Patrol. Marshall is an adorable Dalmatian puppy clad in fireman’s garb. Bence wore his costume for weeks leading up to Halloween. Despite the October heat in southern California, he’d don his Marshall suit, mini red backpack and fireman’s hat complete with fuzzy ears. He couldn’t wait to go trick-or-treating.
I put out my teal pumpkins early that year. They were displayed loud and proud, with informational posters, so passers-by could see what it was all about. That year, I began advocating by presenting at a local chapter of a moms’ club. I distributed informational flyers in our immediate neighborhood and wrote a letter inviting neighbors to join us in participating in the Teal Pumpkin Project.
As Halloween approached, with the exception of neighbors to our right, I didn’t spy a single teal pumpkin displayed in our vicinity. By this time, the Teal Pumpkin Project had started to earn news attention and gain some recognition, so it wasn’t such an obscure movement any longer. I remained hopeful. Plus, I had reached out with a personal plea, so surely folks in our neighborhood would jump on board by All Hallow’s Eve. Maybe they didn’t want to bother with painting a pumpkin teal, but of course they would have some non-food treats to distribute, I reassured myself. I mean, who wouldn’t be in favor of including all kids on Halloween? Everyone would want to participate.
October 31 arrived. My kids were amped up to go trick-or-treating. I was prepared with a plentiful stash of safe candy to swap out for Bence after the fact. But I was still banking on the hope that at least a few houses would offer safe, non-food treats. I knew how excited he was; I wanted so badly for Bence to be able to join in on this childhood tradition.
The southern California evening was comfortable as we commenced the trick-or-treating. The first house we visited was next door. They had a teal pumpkin. Bence got a cool cardboard airplane he could assemble — success! As he and his big sister Nóra ran back to meet us at the sidewalk, his eyes were bright and he was ready for more fun.
But the next four houses we went to offered candy only. My husband and I watched from a few feet behind as our little Dalmatian peered into the treat bowl on tiptoes, and in the absence of safe options, turned around, dejected.
“I can’t have any of that stuff,” he mumbled.
His spotted shoulders sagged a little more with each disappointment, fuzzy ears hanging low. I had brought some emergency lollipops for just this scenario. I assured Bence that I had loads of special treats at home. But my heart was breaking for him. This was no fun at all. It was Halloween and he was supposed to be on a high, not from sugar, per se, but from excitement. The emotion of the night was supposed to be sheer delight, not utter disappointment.
In an effort to end on a high note, I made us trek four blocks away to a home I was certain would have a teal pumpkin. It was the home of a family I knew that had been witness to my teal pumpkin spiel. Yet, when we arrived, there was no teal pumpkin on the doorstep. The kids launched for the doorbell anyway and we were greeted with smiles and giant bowl of candy. Nóra and Bence looked back at me, their faces questioning where the teal pumpkin treats were. It was a disaster.
At Nóra’s pleading, we opted to do one more house on our way home. Bence hung back with my husband and me, gun-shy, by this point. His treat sack was pitifully empty, his tail dangling limp. When Nóra peeked at the treats being offered to the gaggle of kids crowded in the doorway, she spotted some of the children receiving plastic Halloween drinking cups.
She turned to us and shouted, “They have prizes, not just candy! Come on, Bence!”
She emphatically waved her brother forward. Bence hopped down from my husband’s arms and tentatively padded to the door. The lady offered him a bag of pretzels, but Nóra spoke up.
“Can he have a cup?”
The woman looked taken aback. The special gifts were meant for neighbor children she was expecting. She wasn’t planning on giving those out to the general masses. I interjected, pretty sure she mistook Nóra’s advocacy for bold, greedy rudeness.
“My son has pretty extensive food allergies and isn’t able to have most of the treats handed out tonight. His sister was so excited to spot some non-food items,” I explained.
With that, the woman’s face completely changed. She began shoveling in as many of the non-food items as his little sack could hold. She gave him two plastic Halloween cups and stickers galore. I was beyond grateful for her compassion to our sweet little pup.
We made our way back home, the night mercifully saved by that last lucky house. When Bence spread out his loot on the floor, it was sparse to any experienced eye. Bence was happy, though, and for the moment, that’s what counted.
The experience haunted me, however. I’ll admit it — I cried myself to sleep that night. I felt like I had let him down. I felt so sad for him. I was angry that his allergies denied him so many of the simplest childhood pleasures. Even just once in awhile, I wanted him to be able to be carefree and included, instead of the odd one out.
When I woke up on November 1 that year, I was determined. I had 364 days to figure out how to make Halloween more inclusive for Bence next year and each year after that. That’s just what I’ve done.
Interestingly, since that frightful Halloween night, our family has expanded. My youngest daughter Hilde has a feeding tube, so I feel more compelled than ever to advocate for the Teal Pumpkin Project. This initiative promotes inclusion for children with all kinds of conditions, not just food allergies.
Though Halloween will look a little different this year, due to the pandemic, I urge you to participate in FARE’s Teal Pumpkin Project. It makes a huge difference in the lives of children like my son and daughter. Halloween should be happy for all!