(USA TODAY) -- Back in 2012, a Tennessee mom named Becky Basalone had an idea: What if Halloween could be made a little less tricky for kids with food allergies?
Her idea became what is now the Teal Pumpkin Project, a nationwide effort to encourage families — whether their own kids have food restrictions or not — to offer up some non-food treats on Oct. 31. Participation is simple: You just put a teal-colored pumpkin or sign outside your door and offer trick-or-treaters glow sticks, spider rings, Halloween stickers or other non-food goodies, along with or instead of the traditional candies.
Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), a non-profit advocacy group, first promoted the idea nationwide in 2014, with the help of a viral Facebook post, says Nancy Gregory, senior director of communications. In 2015, about 1 million people visited the group’s website to get information, and about 10,000 of them — probably a fraction of participants — put their homes on an interactive map showing teal pumpkin sites, she says.
This year, the group is thinking bigger, Gregory says: “Our goal is to have a home on every block in America with a teal pumpkin. We hope that it becomes a new Halloween tradition.”
Like any true American tradition, this one now has commercial tie-ins. FARE has licensed Teal Pumpkin Project products, from foam pumpkins to painting kits, for sale at partner retailers such as CVS, Michael's, Party City and Oriental Trading Company. The organization gets a cut for its research, education and advocacy programs.
But the more immediate beneficiaries are kids like Alexa Oganov, 5, of Middletown, N.J. The kindergartner has allergies to peanuts, tree nuts and eggs, says her mom, Michelle Oganov.
“Before the Teal Pumpkin Project, we would go trick-or-treating, she would get candy and there wasn’t really anything she could keep,” Oganov says. Alexa could trade the candy for stickers and other non-food rewards at home, but “it was painful for her.”
Since 2014, Oganov has put out teal pumpkins and offered non-food treats at her house, and “luckily I have some really great friends, who also participate,” she says. For Alexa, she says, “it’s exciting.”
Ian Ohlmeyer, 9, of Austin, has allergies to peanuts and eggs, and for most of his life, trick-or-treating meant getting “safe treats” at a couple of friends’ houses and then collecting a bag of candy that he and his parents would sort through at home, says his mother, Kati Ohlmeyer.
“Year after year, I would say 75% were things he couldn’t eat,” she says.
But now, as many as 10 houses in their neighborhood — most of them with no allergic children of their own — put out teal pumpkins, Ohlmeyer says.
The embrace of this new tradition, she says, is just one sign of what she sees as a bigger shift. When Ian was little, she says, “there was a real lack of understanding about the seriousness of food allergies. We have experienced a major shift in people’s awareness, their acceptance of it and their willingness to make accommodations.”
An estimated 1 in 13 children has food allergies, she says, and parents are getting used to keeping their needs in mind.
And it’s not just kids with allergies who benefit when food-free treats are available. So do kids with diabetes and those with gluten sensitivity and other food intolerances, says Ohlmeyer, who is a registered dietitian.
An extra bonus: When offered non-food treats at Halloween and other occasions, kids without any such issues also might consume less sugar.
But Natalie Wilensky of Chevy Chase Village, Md., says the main reason she puts out a teal pumpkin — and thinks of children with food restrictions when she bakes a birthday cake or takes a treat to school — is to teach her unaffected son Jacob, 7, to think of others.
“I want to teach him kindness and empathy and compassion for other kids,” she says.
Tracy Amin of Seattle also wanted to build empathy in her children when she hosted a teal-pumpkin painting party and promoted the idea in her neighborhood last year. This year, daughter Preston, 7, and son Tanner, 4, who have no food restrictions, offered to make finger puppets to give out to trick-or-treaters.
“They are really taking it upon themselves to help other kids, Amin says.
Want to participate? Here’s how:
• Paint or buy a teal pumpkin and put it where trick-or-treaters can see it. Or just put out a sign (free downloadable versions are at FARE’s website).
• Get some non-food treats. Suggestions from FARE include: glow sticks, bracelets and necklaces; whistles, kazoos and noisemakers; bubbles; vampire fangs; playing cards and bookmarks.
• If you choose to give out candy, too, put it in a separate bowl. Offer both options to all trick-or-treaters — and do not be surprised if children with no food restrictions take some of the non-food items, previous participants say.