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Food allergy hero: One mom’s Halloween tradition of supporting kids with food allergies

Jennifer Pattinson-Speed doesn’t have kids with food allergies, yet she’s been giving out non-food treats for Halloween over the last 20 years.

She understands the impact food allergies have on families and loves seeing the excitement on kids’ faces when she gives them a Halloween goody-bag filled with non-food treats like Halloween toys, pencils and stickers. She also encourages members in her community to join her is handing out non-food treats.

Jennifer recently spoke to us about her commitment to kids with food allergies.

How did you learn about food allergies?

As a child, I was allergic to penicillin and had an issue with processing some foods. After seeing a specialist, it was determined that I have a number of non-food allergies as well as some food intolerances. I was very lucky that none of these allergies impacted the way I consume food, or participate in food-related activities, such as trick or treating.

What prompted you to support kids with food allergies at Halloween and when did you start?

My son will be 22 years old in a couple weeks. He has no allergies but when he was very little, our neighbours would buy him a toy for Halloween as a special treat when he knocked on their door. The excitement he got from that simple gesture was enough to convince me that it was something I would start doing for the kids in the neighbourhood.

It started off as plastic spider rings but has evolved into a small bag with a bouncy ball, spider ring, Halloween pencil, stickers and more. We’ve been handing out non-candy treats alongside peanut-free candy for about 20 years now. In the last 10 years or so we started hearing a lot of the parents reminding kids about their allergies. This prompted me to start having peanut-free candy / chocolate in one container and the toys in another. This would ensure that no candy was given to a child who did not or could not have it while giving all children the opportunity to have a candy-free option.

For Halloween, do you get a lot of kids with food allergies at your door?

Lately there has been a larger number of children coming by with food allergies. It may not be more per say, it might be that the kids are more verbal about having an allergy. The most common allergy I hear is to peanuts. Because of this we make sure to only get peanut-free candy and chocolate.

As we have been giving candy and toys for some time the kids know what to expect at our house, some with allergies have even started trading us for things that they aren’t able to eat. All of the candies we get from this exchange go into a 3rd bucket for kids without allergies to freely take from. We never touch it (during trick or treat hours) just in case it has been in contact with peanuts (I don’t want to transfer that to the toys or peanut-free chocolate by mistake).

How do kids with food allergies react? What do your friends and neighbours think?

The kids with allergies who come to our house for the first time are so excited to get their goody bag. We make sure to tell their parents that there is no candy in the bag when handing it over, so the kids are able to open it right away. Seeing their reactions takes me back to watching my son get his special toy from my neighbours.

My current neighbours don’t give out allergy-friendly options. A bunch have commented on how hard it must be to keep doing this. I’ve encouraged them to try it. We buy the toys during the Halloween sales after November 1st. They end up being cheaper than a candy option and every kid can enjoy it.

What do you think others should know about food allergies? And how to support those that have them?

I think people find catering to those with the food allergies too difficult to plan around. You don’t have to see it this way, especially at Halloween. There are so many options out there to provide the trick or treaters that everyone can enjoy so there isn’t a need to cater to anyone. It takes only a couple minutes of planning and you can include everyone.

What do you think is the best way to educate others?

I think leading by example is the best way to go in my case. Explaining to the families, as we hand out the bags to each child, that “there are no food products in the bag so all kids with and without allergies can enjoy them” then saying “we also have peanut-free chocolate if you’d like to take one”. It’s subtle, but I think it works.

Thanks Jennifer for helping to create a safer Halloween for kids with food allergies and driving awareness and education at the same time! You’re a food allergy champion and role-model for community members across the country.