STILLWATER, Okla. – “Trick or treat, smell my feet. Give me something good to eat.”
While this chant is familiar to many youngsters who go trick-or-treating, food allergies may leave some children feeling left out of the fun.
A Pottawatomie County 4-H’er has been working to bring about awareness of food allergies and promoting the inclusion of all trick-or-treaters throughout the Halloween season, which is the biggest candy holiday of the year.
The Teal Pumpkin Project, an initiative through Food Allergy Research and Education, is designed to make sure all children come home from trick-or-treating with treats they can enjoy and are not a health risk.
Thirteen-year-old Kyleigh Merrick of McLoud has family and friends who deal with food allergies, so she knows first-hand what can happen when a person comes in contact with or consumes a food to which he or she is allergic.
After hearing about the Teal Pumpkin Project at a 4-H speech contest about three years ago, Merrick decided this was one way in which she could contribute to her community and work on a 4-H project at the same time.
“I did a lot of research about the Teal Pumpkin Project and I joined the website,” the eighth grader said. “One of my main 4-H projects is public speaking and this gave me an opportunity to share information about it and help people understand the dangers of food allergies.”
Through her research, Merrick discovered about one in 13 children in the United States has a food allergy and about 200,000 youth each year end up receiving medical care due to a food allergy.
“The Teal Pumpkin Project is a great alternative to handing out edible treats, it saves lives, brings kids together to enjoy the holiday and it’s a great way to help prevent kids from getting sick,” she said.
The Teal Pumpkin Project worldwide, with households from all 50 states, as well as 14 countries, participating in the movement to create a fun holiday for everyone.
People who want to participate in the project can do so by simply painting a pumpkin teal colored and placing it on their front porch. Teal is the color for food allergy awareness. Merrick suggests painting a plastic pumpkin teal as opposed to a real one because it will last longer. The pumpkin on the porch indicates the homeowner is aware of food allergies. Then, instead of passing out traditional candy treats, nonfood items such as stickers, small toys, bouncy balls, learning cards, spider rings and pens and pencils with fun designs are distributed.
Merrick, who is a member of the Dale 4-H Club, said when she first began her work with the project, she spoke to the McCloud Chamber of Commerce and the Masons. She received a donation which she used to buy about 500 nonedible treats.
She expanded her outreach efforts by participating in the Fall Festival at her church, which she has done every year since and plans to do again later this month. She continues to host fundraisers so she can purchase more nonedible treats that can be distributed while children are trick-or-treating.
Merrick noted she is not a big sweets eater herself, so when she would go trick-or-treating, she ended up giving away most of her candy to her parents and sister.
“The Teal Pumpkin Project gives everyone a chance to participate and come home with something they like,” she said.
Cathleen Taylor, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension 4-H educator in Pottawatomie County, said Merrick has found her niche in 4-H, especially in her work with the Teal Pumpkin Project.
“Kyleigh is very driven and passionate and always giving 110 percent,” Taylor said. “She truly is a 4-H educator’s dream and is a positive influence on others. Through her example, other 4-H’ers have found projects they are passionate about.”
Over the last couple of years, Taylor said Merrick has become even more involved in the leadership opportunities in 4-H. Merrick has served as local club recreation leader and vice president, along with serving as the recreation leader on the Pottawatomie County leadership council. She also serves as a Pottawatomie County 4-H Ambassador.
“When she is teaching programs to the younger members, they all look up to Kyleigh,” Taylor said.
Not only is Merrick providing a fun and safe alternative to trick-or-treating, she also is honing her public speaking skills while making a difference in her community. She has participated in the speech contest at State 4-H Roundup and took top honors. She also has competed at the local, county and district speech contests. Oklahoma now offers a state speech contest to its 4-H members and Merrick placed third with her Teal Pumpkin Project speech.
Individuals who are interested in participating in the Teal Pumpkin Project can go to www.tealpumpkinproject.org and take the pledge. Simply put the teal pumpkin on your porch to indicate your support of the project and convey you have nonedible treats available. It is a simple idea that can make a world of difference.