I am thrilled to have had the chance to interview Becky Basalone, mother of two kids with allergies and who is the person behind the Teal Pumpkin Project. It all started with her and her one teal pumpkin for her own children and has exploded from there into an allergy awareness and inclusion project throughout the US and even further afield. Thank you Becky for taking the time to answer some questions.
For those that haven’t heard of the Teal Pumpkin Project what is it and how did it start?
The Teal Pumpkin Project is an initiative to raise awareness of food allergies and promote respect, compassion and inclusion for all children. We encourage families to paint a pumpkin teal in recognition AND provide non-food items as a safe alternative.
My youngest son, age 2 at the time, was diagnosed with multiple life-threatening food allergies in 2012. To connect more with local families, I started a food allergy support group, the Food Allergy Community of East Tennessee – more commonly known in our area as FACET. Our small support group attended an Allergy-Friendly Trunk or Treat event sponsored by our allergist and my family painted a teal pumpkin as part of our vehicle’s trunk décor. We passed out non-food items and contact cards for FACET. Afterwards, my oldest son, age 5 then, placed the pumpkin on our front porch and we were prepared to pass out the same treats to our neighbourhood trick-or-treaters. We provided the option to choose from a bowl of candy treats or a bowl of safe “tricks” for those that visited our home … and we met several other families managing food allergies in our area. The kids loved having the opportunity to choose a trick or treat. This became a Halloween tradition for our family to provide both – and my sons believed that this made sense because the neighbourhood visitors always ask “Trick or Treat” at the door. Our trick bowl contained an assortment of items like spider rings, googly-eye glasses, crayons, colouring sheets, bouncy (eye)balls, SLIME, Boxes of Band-Aids, stickers, wind-up toys, matchbox cars, hair accessories, eye patches, glow sticks etc.
FACET had grown to approximately 50 families by 2013 and we were a FARE-recognized support group when we decided to launch the Teal Pumpkin Program (aka Food Allergy Awareness Pumpkins) through our local support group efforts. We made flyers and posters encouraging participants to paint a pumpkin teal or hang a sign on the door indicating that non-food treats are also available. We made sure to educate the need to keep the candy separate to avoid cross contact. This would allow children with food allergies and other dietary restrictions to safely participate in the fun of traditional trick or treating on Halloween. We did not wish to exclude candy but instead wanted to add another option of a safe alternative to be available. My friend and fellow support group leader, Jennifer Addington, of the Northeast Georgia Food Allergy Support Group shared our facebook post on twitter and it took off on both social media sites. This caught the attention of other support group leaders and FARE’s leadership team. We are so appreciative of the support in helping to promote this project on a national level this year.
I am aware that you have children with food allergies, what age are your children and what are they allergic/intolerant to?
As an infant, my oldest son (now age 7) had issues with cow’s milk and other foods but was never diagnosed with a true allergy. It is believed now that he has outgrown FPIES and has the current diagnosis of a milk intolerance.
My youngest son (age 4) has a history of anaphylaxis and was first diagnosed in 2012 with life-threatening food allergies to cow’s milk, peanut, all tree nuts, shellfish, cinnamon, apple and intolerances to several food preservatives. He has since outgrown his cow’s milk allergy.
Before your pumpkin turned teal, what were your Halloween traditions?
We liked to participate in all (non-scary) Halloween activities for the children – usually attended the Boo at the Zoo event at our local zoo, our church’s Trunk or Treat, fall festivals at local schools and community clubs … and of course, we went trick or treating to many houses in our area.
How has the pumpkin project changed how your children enjoy Halloween?
I began doing the Teal Pumpkin Project the first year that my son was diagnosed, so the diagnosis brought about the need to develop new traditions for my family. We are extremely cautious and vigilant to ensure strict avoidance of his allergens. Halloween is scary because it is so food-focused. We still participate in traditional trick or treating and other Halloween activities but only visit a few homes in the neighbourhood. My child with food allergies is not allowed to touch the candy as it is dropped into the bag – if it is a candy item that we know contains his allergen, we simply say “No thank you, he has food allergies” or his brother will graciously accept the item in his bag instead depending on the product. At the end of the night, we pretend that I am the Switch Witch and I swap his entire bag for a bag full of safe treats – candy and non-food items. His brother also gets a candy bag of safe treats and we check through all trick or treat candy to determine what he would like to keep and what will be donated. There are many great organizations that will gladly accept candy donations – Operation Gratitude for our military or a Buy Back Program organized through a dentist are our favourites. We also use candy sorting as a great learning tool for checking labels by recognizing pictures or words that indicate the food item is not safe. It is great to get the kids involved and explain to them why certain foods are not safe. Additionally, our support group hosts a food-free Halloween event each year!
Do you think the teal pumpkin project is contributing to changing people’s attitudes towards allergies and making people realise how serious allergies can be?
Oh yes. I have received countless emails of personal testimonies from people that didn’t understand how some children may be excluded during activities that are centred around food … meaning, until they heard about the Teal Pumpkin Project, they didn’t even consider that Halloween would be difficult for some families. This project is raising awareness in a positive way while also offering the opportunity for more education and compassion. The best thing about it is people everywhere are talking about food allergies … and the food allergy community is united in a fun project that will no doubt improve a holiday that is usually dreaded by so many. Across the United States – entire neighbourhood associations, public and private schools, churches, businesses and organizations, hospitals and medical practices, farmers and retail stores are all participating in the Teal Pumpkin Project this year. It is absolutely wonderful for our children to see this amount of support!
Anyone in the allergy community that I’ve spoken to about the Teal Pumpkin Project thinks it’s a great initiative. How do you feel that it has spread throughout your own country and much further afield?
Thank you! I absolutely LOVE that the Teal Pumpkin Project has been accepted as a new tradition for families across the nation. As a parent, I pray that my actions have a positive impact on my children but I had never imagined that this act of love would reach so far and impact so many. It is definitely accomplishing its mission of raising awareness and it has united the food allergy community and beyond to stand strong in support of our children.
FACET’s mission is to improve the social aspect of food allergy through support, education and advocacy as a group of individuals and families affected by food allergies and anaphylaxis. We recognize the need to raise public awareness of food allergy in our community, public institutions and restaurants. I think that we are doing a pretty great job so far! ;) I am so unbelievably proud of FACET, our leadership team, and our fellow advocates/support group leaders across the nation. This is a collaborative effort that has far exceeded my hopes – and it isn’t even Halloween yet. It is only going to get better as this initiative grows in the years to come.
Thank you Becky for taking the time to answer these questions. I think it is wonderful that an idea from one parent of a child with allergies can take off like this and become something which now is happening in many many households. Something you did for your own children is now having a positive effect on many children around the world. I have painted our pumpkin teal, and made some teal pumpkin lanterns and I look forward to offering non food treats this Halloween as well as the usual sweets. I have explained to my boys why we are doing this and also explained about how they are lucky that some food treats are ok for them but that for others they aren’t so lucky.
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