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There's an alternative to Snickers, Kit Kats and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups this Halloween and all trick-or-treaters have to do is be on the lookout for teal pumpkins.

The Teal Pumpkin Project, started by a mom who had children with food allergies in 2012 in Tennessee, lets children and parents know a house offers non-food treat items such as bubbles or small toys at Halloween. A homeowner simply places a teal pumpkin on his or her porch. 

Teal pumpkins have become so prevalent these days -- especially as peanut allergies continue to rise -- that even major retailers such as Kroger and Target are selling them this Halloween.

Experts say the project is a great way to alleviate parent concerns about possible allergic reactions to candy and help more children feel included in the fun.

"Halloween is probably one of the biggest holiday activities that kids look forward to throughout the year," said Lisa Gable, chief executive officer of the Food Allergy Research & Education, a group dedicated to improving the lives of those with food allergies and supporting research. "What the Teal Pumpkin Project does, through non-food treats, is allow kids to participate."

And it doesn't just benefit kids with allergies, said Gable.

It also helps include "kids who don’t have allergies but may not be able to enjoy Halloween otherwise," such as those with special needs, she said.

Natalie Stacey and her daughter, Sophia, of West Bloomfield Township will be looking for teal pumpkins this Halloween. Sophia, 9, is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame and shellfish. They also have a teal pumpkin on their own porch and have offered non-treat foods such as glow sticks, Play-Doh and bouncy balls.

"When Sophia sees other homes with teal pumpkins on their porch her eyes light up, (she) smiles and screams 'Mom, it’s safe!'" said Natalie. "It brings tears to my eyes that she, too, can enjoy the simple joys most kids experience while trick-or-treating."

To be a part of the Teal Pumpkin Project, FARE offers a tool on its website, foodallergy.org, to both register your home and find maps of those that have already signed up near you. Roughly 33,000 homes signed up last year, said Gable.

Some kids even "carry around the map," said Gable.

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the prevalence of food allergies in children increased by 50% between 1997 and 2011. Between 1997 and 2008 alone, peanut or tree nut allergies appear to have more than tripled in U.S. children.

Gable said a number of factors may be responsible for the increase. Hygiene -- society is much cleaner today than it used to be, she said -- may be a factor. The gut may also be a component and research is being done on microbes in the gut, she said. 

FARE has 33 clinical networks across the country where research is being done on food allergies and the University of Michigan's Mary H. Weiser Food Allergy Center is one of them.

Its director, Dr. Mark Baker, testified in September before an FDA panel about a new drug that was tested in clinical trials last year and was found to reduce severe allergic reactions to peanuts but not eliminate them. The Weiser Center was one of the research sites that participated in the trials. 

“Right now the only approved approach to this allergy is to avoid peanuts, and the amount of effort and cost involved in making sure everything your child is exposed to is peanut-free is overwhelming to most families,” Baker said.

For the Staceys, when Sophia gets candy that isn't safe at Halloween, the family has a routine. Sophia separates out the unsafe candy pieces, washes her hands and later leaves the candy outside her bedroom door on Halloween night. Then the "Switch Witch" gets to work, says Natalie.

"The Switch Witch takes all the candy she’s allergic to and gives her a small gift or replacement treat that’s safe," said Natalie.

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

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