SIOUX CITY | As a young girl growing up in Ankeny, Iowa, Tessa Kleene loved to trick-or-treat with her two sisters every Halloween.
"One year, we went as characters from 'The Wizard of Oz,'" she remembered with a laugh. "One sister was the Tin Man, another sister was the Scarecrow. Me? I was Dorothy."
Yet Kleene, the registered dietitian for Hy-Vee's Sioux City store at 3301 Gordon Drive, acknowledged some children don't have fond memories of Halloween.
"There are approximately 5.9 million children who have food allergies," she said. "That means one in 13 children will have some sort of food allergy, or about two in every classroom."
According to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), a food allergy is a medical condition in which food triggers a harmful immune response. While more than 170 foods can cause an allergic reaction, milk, eggs, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and crustacean shellfish are the main culprits for food-related allergies in the United States.
"A reaction can range from anything from a rash to the tightening of a throat or, in the most extreme cases, even death," Kleene explained.
This is why she's proud that Hy-Vee stores are participating in the Teal Pumpkin Project, a nationwide awareness campaign started by FARE four years ago.
"We are encouraging people to paint a pumpkin teal and put it on their porch," Kleene said. "This will indicate to trick-or-treaters that safe, non-food treats will be available for kids with allergies."
If a person doesn't want a teal pumpkin, he can simply download a Teal Pumpkin Project logo from www.foodallergy.org, placing it on a window or door.
"This way, kids with food allergies can easily identify which house are safe for them," Kleene said.
Households participating in the Teal Pumpkin Project are encouraged to have non-food items to hand out to trick-or-treaters. Such treats can be Halloween-themed stickers, stencils, glow sticks or bouncy balls.
"Even a pair of vampire teeth will make a fun item this Halloween," Kleene suggested.
Indeed, many Hy-Vee stores have shelf space dedicated to participating Teal Pumpkin Project households. A few days before Halloween, the Gordon Drive Hy-Vee still had teal pumpkin painting kits, toys and, yes, plastic vampire teeth.
Plus the store also had a wide assortment of candy.
Kleen said Teal Pumpkin Project households can still pass out candy to trick-or-treaters.
"Sure, just play it safe by keeping food and non-food items in separate containers," she explained. "Them you can give children a choice, or ask if they have food allergies before deciding what to give."
The number of kids experiencing food allergies has been on the rise for years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that food allergies in children has increased 50 percent between 1997 and 2011. Plus the prevalence of peanut or tree nut allergies has more than tripled for U.S. kids between 1997 and 2008.
"The problem is only getting worse," Kleene said. "It's why such awareness programs like the Teal Pumpkin Project are so important.
"After all, Halloween is more about having fun with your friends and family than it is about the candy," she added.