Jenny Kales spent the last few hours of a recent Halloween night scraping from her front stoop the peanut butter candies that trick-or-treaters had dropped in their dashes from door to door. She's not an obsessive cleaner, mind you, just a mother of a child with a food allergy.
A Reese's peanut butter cup can be more than a mess. It can be life-threatening.
Kales, 41, of La Grange Park, has written the Nut-Free Mom Blog (nut-freemom.blogspot.com) for the last three years as a way to process her feelings about her daughter Alexandra's nut allergy. Blogging also enables the freelance writer to share the knowledge she has accumulated since Alexandra, now 11, bit into a peanut butter sandwich in preschool and went into shock.
"I didn't know anyone else in my situation," she said. "It's a scary time."
Nut allergies are scary for the kids too. The scariest time of all is Halloween, when kids expect to trick-or-treat with their friends, regardless of their ability to process nut proteins.
"When I was younger, I was always nervous about eating the wrong thing or not getting anything that was OK for me to eat," said Alexandra, a sixth-grader who double-checks labels before popping any candy in her mouth.
Her mother recently devoted a blog post to Halloween tips for parents. Carry two candy bags, she wrote. "One is for 'possibles' … candies you will review with your child when you get home, and one is for 'unsafe' candies."
Next, she advised moms and dads to fill kids' bellies before they leave the house.
"Take a hungry child with a food allergy and dangle some Halloween candy before them — are they going to be tempted? Most likely. So don't let that happen."
Kales told parents of nut-allergic kids to provide nearby neighbors with safe candy they can distribute to the little monsters who ring their doorbells.
And when all else fails, advised the blogger, trade with other kids. "First, we swap 'unsafe' candies with our child's friends who don't have allergies. Most kids are willing to give up their lollipops, gum and other 'safe' candies for my daughter's unwanted Reese's, Snickers and other nut-filled chocolate treats. Secondly, we tell our daughter that she can turn in any unsafe candy to us for a 'safe' treat bag. I fill it with nut-free chocolate … and some inedibles such as some lip balm, a book or maybe some inexpensive Halloween earrings."
Kales touts allergy-friendly products, like Vermont Nut-Free Chocolate (vermontnutfree.com), whose sales have increased in recent years.
"Many more kids are being stricken with this allergy, and their parents don't want to take any chances," said Mark Elvidge, company vice president.
The National Institutes of Health estimate that almost 5 percent of children younger than 5 and almost 4 percent of kids 5-17 deal with food allergies.
Dr. Rachel Robison, attending physician in the division of allergy and immunology at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, confirmed that food allergies in general are on the rise, though she cautioned that these findings could be the result of better testing, more awareness or even the hygiene hypothesis, which theorizes that we have gotten too clean as a culture, causing our immune systems to "get bored" and begin acting abnormally.
Robison and her colleagues treat the spectrum of abnormalities — nut-allergic responses that range from mild rashes to anaphylactic shock characterized by vomiting, lethargy, even the cessation of breathing.
It's serious stuff, heightened during this holiday: Your chocolate got in my peanut butter! Your peanut butter got in my allergic kid!
Alex Dankowski is such a kid — allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. He's going trick-or-treating as a ninja this year. Along with his sword and nunchucks, he'll be carrying a pair of Epinephrine-injecting EpiPens (the backup pen in the event that the first fails or one dose isn't enough).
The 9-year-old admitted that he wishes he could eat Snickers and Reese's cups — his classmates at Disney II Magnet School in the Old Irving Park neighborhood tell him they taste great — but he's happy to stick to the safe stuff. "I like Starburst and lollipops," he said.
"(On Halloween) we never eat anything homemade. We never eat anything unknown. And we don't mess around with chocolate," said mom Caroline, a registered nurse who has provided tutorials to Chicago Park District employees on administering EpiPens in the event of allergic reactions. "But Alex can eat one piece of known candy while he's trick-or-treating."
Neither the mothers nor the doctor has heard of any towns attempting to regulate the candy residents distribute to trick-or-treaters.
"If anybody tried to do that, there would be public outcry," said blogger Kales. "But we have noticed more self-regulation in the past few years. And we're seeing a lot more nonedible things — people giving out pencils. Little by little, people are making an effort, which we appreciate."