Why Teal Pumpkins Aren’t Just About Food Allergies


It’s no secret that kids and candy go together like peanut butter and jelly. At no time is this more obvious than on October 31. Who doesn’t have blissful childhood memories of filling a pillowcase with rich, sugary treats? Who doesn’t remember the pleadings of parents to “just have one piece, and save the rest for later,” followed by the inevitable resigned sigh as empty wrappers settle into colorful piles all over the living room? Halloween and the accompanying feasting upon everything unhealthy is so ingrained in our culture that to imagine October 31 without it just seems… wrong. But what do you do for Halloween if your kid can’t have candy? The fact of the matter is, ever since trick-or-treating has been a tradition, there have been some kids who have been left out of the festivities.

A few years ago, a clever proposal was put forth to allow non-candy eaters with food allergies to participate in trick-or-treating. The initiative, called the “teal pumpkin project” was started by food allergy advocates, who encourage families to place a teal-colored pumpkin on their porch in solidarity of those with food allergies. Children know to go to these houses because instead of candy, they will be given a small toy or other non-food trinket (glow stick, plastic ring, etc.). Sounds like a great idea, right? Unfortunately, and without fail, every year around this time I begin to read articles about the project, which include comments like,

“Why should my kid have to suffer just because yours can’t eat peanuts?”

or

“Just pick the candy out that they can’t eat.”

As hurtful and ignorant as those sentiments can feel, I think many people genuinely do not understand that there are many children who cannot eat candy for a variety of reasons, not just food allergies.

My son Kyler, for example, is on a strict medical diet due to his rare genetic disorder, Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS). You see, as Kyler grows older he will likely develop an insatiable appetite, something called hyperphagia. Jessica Patay, a fellow PWS mom, highlights in her article, “Why Food is Like Air To My Son With Prader-Willi Syndrome,” how this is not your run of the mill hunger. Hyperphagia is caused by a malfunction in the hypothalamus of the brain. The effect is that a person with PWS feels like they will starve to death if they do not constantly eat. Coupled with an inability to vomit and extremely high pain tolerance, this means Kyler and others like him can eat until their stomachs physically explode. This heartbreaking possibility haunts the dreams of every PWS family.

Halloween is a devastating holiday for many PWS parents. We think fondly of our own childhood memories, sorting and trading candy while recovering from sugar comas the next morning. Unfortunately, many kids with PWS cannot carry around a bag of candy without experiencing overwhelming anxiety and fear that they will lose control and eat the entire bag. It is just too tempting. Many of us also choose to put our children on strict ketogentic or low-carb, high-fat diets in an attempt to stave off some of the symptoms of PWS. For these people (such as Kyler), candy will never, ever be on the menu.

When you really think about just how many holidays revolve around food in our country, you realize that holiday overindulgence is inescapable. Gluttonous quantities of turkey and stuffing at Thanksgiving, pies at Christmas. Hell, even chocolates on Valentine’s Day are something we’ve come to recognize as mandatory. Sadly, many PWS families eventually choose to avoid family gatherings and holidays altogether because it is just too stressful and heartbreaking.

And I know we are not alone. There many kids with stories like Kyler’s. Whether they are on strict diets due to a medical condition like epilepsy, have food allergies, or another condition, the teal pumpkin project allows our kids to feel “normal” in a world where they are so often misunderstood.

So before you interject with a quip about peanuts or gluten, please understand that teal pumpkins aren’t just about candy. They’re about allowing our children to share in a tradition that is ingrained in our culture, our families, and the spirit of who we are. To have this one seemingly meaningless tradition back, where my kid can fill his treat bag and not have to worry about his diagnosis… that means the world.

Image via Facebook – Teal Pumpkin Project

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