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It’s not just a cookie

When I wrote a post last month questioning Girl Scout cookies, I didn’t know what to expect. People get touchy about American icons.  Or they get afflicted with “it’s just a cookie” syndrome. But I plowed in anyway. No pain, no gain and all that. And wow. Talk about hitting a nerve. But in a good way. A really good way. That post got people talking and thinking critically and making changes.

Then Fooducate reprinted the piece last week (I tweaked it a bit to add some ingredients lists), and the conversation continued anew. (Check out the comments both on Fooducate and on Fooducate’s Facebook page.) A blog called Lunch Box Mom also tackled the issue (and interviewed me). And the Mama Says blog went into more detail on cookie ingredients.

There were dissenters, to be sure. I was accused of Girl Scout bashing, of robbing little girls of opportunities, of being a whiny, emotionally stunted health nut. Someone told me it was “criminal” that my daughter has never tasted a Girl Scout cookie. Oh, well. The blogosphere is nothing without a little hyperbole. And as I wrote in response to one commenter on the Fooducate post:

“People too often confuse activism like this for an anti-treats or anti-fun or other extreme agenda. But this isn’t about never eating sweets or taking away people’s cookies or letting food control your life. And this isn’t just about Girl Scout cookies. This is about holding corporations accountable for ingredients that have no business in our food supply.”

But most of the discussion has been… thrilling. People are deeply interested in and concerned about both the ingredients in Girl Scout cookies and the mixed messages that cookie sales send. In comments and by e-mail, I’ve heard from people who took a stand, donating money but skipping the cookies (buying and selling). And — importantly — telling troops and councils why they’ve made that decision. Thrilling, I tell you. Thrilling!

I couldn’t help but ponder, then, whether the Girl Scouts’ new “cookie strategy” outlined in this Atlantic article might be a nudge in the right direction. Apparently cookie sales have held steady for the last decade, but there’s also been a large inventory of unsold boxes. So the Girl Scouts are testing a plan to increase profits by offering fewer varieties. Fewer varieties mean fewer recipes to tweak. Could that mean — dare I hope? — that the organization and its bakeries might be open to more substantial ingredient changes? Hmmm.

A case for moderation?

Yet I’ll temper that with a little reality. The article includes excerpts from a Girl Scouts business summary, including this helpful sales tip: “Cookies are a once-a-year treat that should be enjoyed in moderation.” But then, two sentences later: “The newest cookie trend? Buying them by the CASE to help a girl reach her goals.” Sigh. How exactly do these people keep straight faces while talking out of both sides of their mouths?

And that “moderation” thing? Here was my response to a Fooducate commenter:

“The food industry loves it when people justify food choices by claiming ‘everything in moderation’ — because those are the golden words that absolve food makers of responsibility. But the truth is that plenty of ingredients are not OK in moderation, nor do they actually exist in moderation.

“Take artificial colors. A parent might figure, hey, what’s one brightly colored cupcake at a birthday party? But what about the birthday party the next week? And then the lollipop at the bank, and the frosted cookie at Grandma’s, and the candy handed out as a reward at school, and the sports drink at soccer? Not to mention the pickles and marshmallows and tortilla chips and countless other foods that look ‘natural’ but actually also contain petroleum-derived food dyes. When people start realizing what’s in their food, ‘moderation’ loses its appeal.”

But back to the good stuff. In my post last month, I mentioned two Michigan Girl Scouts who, as sixth-graders in 2006, created an alternative fundraiser after learning that the cookies contain palm oil*, which is linked to rainforest destruction and mass orangutan deaths. Those two Scouts, Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen, now 15-year-old tenth-graders, have since gotten the support of primatologist Jane Goodall, raised money for orangutan conservation and created campaigns trying to persuade the Girl Scouts to ditch palm oil.

Assembling for a cause

They’ve done a petition and letter writing. And now there’s a puzzle-piece campaign asking past and present Scouts and troop leaders to decorate blank puzzle pieces (provided by the girls) showing why they oppose palm oil. Madi and Rhiannon (whose work was featured in a recent Grist article**) are assembling the pieces and plan to present them to the Girl Scouts’ national office.  Now that’s a Girl Scout project. What a great way to show girls that their voices and values matter.

You can get in touch with Madi and Rhiannon through their Facebook profile or Facebook page. (Note: The Facebook group initially linked to in the Grist article was not in fact affiliated with Madi and Rhiannon, but Grist now has corrected the link.) Or e-mail them directly at saveorangutans137 (at) hotmail (dot) com.

Thoughts on the cookies, activism, teaching our kids that values matter and that they can make a difference?

*The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was created to standardize practices for growing and sourcing sustainable palm oil. But there’s a lot of caution and controversy surrounding the issue.

**Most coverage of palm oil claims it’s not only environmentally destructive, but also unhealthy. But that’s actually up for serious debate. Palm oil is a mostly saturated fat, and while saturated fat has been demonized over the years, even mainstream science has come around to realizing that was wrong.

This post is linked into Fight Back Fridays.

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{ 20 comments… add one }

  • Garden Variety Mama February 19, 2011, 6:03 pm

    Thank you so much for bringing this up, and for sticking with it. I often get the response from people that I’m ‘anti-treat’ and ‘anti-fun’, too. But I don’t mind if kids eat cookies, I just prefer to give my kids homemade ones.

    And I have really mixed feelings about the Girl Scout Cookies; I was a camp director at a Girl Scout camp, and I love the organization and many of the things they do. I saw so much come out of those girls at camp that they didn’t know was there, and it was a growth experience for both staff and campers.

    And while I’m all for raising money to support an organization that I like, the cookies are really not okay. In a country with a childhood obesity epidemic, we really have no business selling cookies to each other. Especially cookies this unhealthy. It’s time to come up with another fundraiser, Girl Scouts.

  • Milehimama February 19, 2011, 6:41 pm

    Thanks for mentioning my post.

    I have no problem with the Girl Scouts in general. I was a GS from Brownie to Senior. I think I learned a lot of life lessons and important skills from selling GS cookies.

    But I didn’t buy any this year, and I’m so disappointed at the low-quality ingredients.

    Now maybe next year I’ll tackle Boy Scout popcorn…

  • Dreena Tischler February 20, 2011, 8:37 am

    I think that if we could start a campaign to get parents to MAKE cookies for their kids (and still exercise moderation) that the sales of all kinds of junk would decline dramatically. I feed my children healthy food, but I did not want them to grow up in a cookie free world. So we bake them at home, freeze them in small batches (so we don’t overindulge), and make them with at least half whole-wheat flour. Guess what? My kids PREFER homemade cookies. They will often pass up the store bought ones they are offered by friends.

    I wish the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and local SCHOOLS would put health above fund-raising. But changing corporate consciousness is a big challenge. Getting parents to bake seems easier.

  • jenna @ Kid Appeal February 20, 2011, 8:37 am

    i constantly get “what’s the big deal” with any school food reform issue we tackle. it’s just a little sugar in milk, or cereal, or ice cream bar, or what’s wrong with a nugget every once in a while.

    any one thing in actual moderation wouldn’t be a big deal. i try to figure out where the ignorance on what’s really in the food we eat comes from. in part it’s counter-intuitive. food is supposed feed us, so it’s hard to believe that a granola bar with something healthy in it like oats, could cause harm because it’s loaded with 18 factory made ingredients.

    another scarier part is that some folks who know the truth, want to ignore the truth, because once you face it you’re left with two options: continue eating a bunch of garbage that may eventually damage your health or stage a major shift in the way you shop, cook and eat. To most the latter is daunting, so they pretend the amount of garbage in so called “healthy food” isn’t that bad. some are afraid of becoming hypocrites by avoiding large amounts of food they used to condone under the “moderation” model.

    chapeau to you for starting an important and difficult dialog!

  • Bettina at The Lunch Tray February 20, 2011, 8:54 am

    I’ll post a link to this piece this week on The Lunch Tray — you’ve got an interesting discussion going on something that not a lot of people give much thought to.

  • Liz February 20, 2011, 12:47 pm

    Good for you for sticking to your guns! This is an issue that goes beyond just Girl Scout Cookies. And to the person who said it was “criminal” that your child had never tasted a Girl Scout Cookie: what is “criminal” is that we feed our children carcinogenic chemicals and other unhealthy ingredients without question.

  • Bethesda Locavore February 20, 2011, 2:22 pm

    Hehe, love your response to the “everything in moderation” mantra. Poisonous trans fats? In moderation. Destroying orangutan habitat? Okay, but only in moderation. :-) Good for you getting this conversation moving!!!

  • Renee February 20, 2011, 7:06 pm

    I just dropped my daughter off for a playdate, and the family’s entire dining room table was stacked, at least 15 boxes high, with GS cookies. My daughter’s friend is a GS, and this is how many boxes she’s sold. I’m bothered both by the cookies, and also that being the best at selling something people don’t need is something to be so proud of. I know that GS teaches valuable lessons, but I don’t think that’s one of them.

    On a positive note, my daughter’s choir had a fundraiser, and the director purposefully chose not to sell candy or wrapping paper. Instead, the kids all raised money through pledges –they committed to learning 25 songs, on their own, from a list of classic American songs. Pledges ran the gamut from 10 cents to a dollar a song. Then they held a concert where they sang these songs. I love that the director made a conscious decision to create a fundraiser that didn’t involve consuming!

    • Christina February 20, 2011, 9:26 pm

      Renee, I love that choir fundraiser. My daughter’s school just did something similar with math workbooks, where the kids collected pledges for completing the books, with the proceeds going to a charity. But that choir fundraiser sounds like so much fun.

    • Lauren February 21, 2011, 7:24 pm

      That is an AMAZING idea!!

  • Pamela P February 21, 2011, 1:15 pm

    Thrilling indeed, Chris! Congrats on starting such a great conversation. I am currently in the midst of my own version of this struggle because our elementary school has just launched a cookie dough fundraiser. We are supposed to sell the fresh, unbaked dough. When I first heard about this fundraiser I e-mailed our PTA asking about an ingredients list. She told me it would be available when the sale started. I thought about inquiring whether the PTA committee had therefore not looked at the ingredients list when deciding on the fundraiser but let it go. When the fundraiser info was sent home last week it had no ingredients listed on the 6 page brochure nor a web site listed where one could view them. I googled the company but there were no ingredients listed on the web site here: http://www.entertainment.com/fundraising/products-cookie-dough.htm
    I e-mailed the PTA coordinator, who said she would look into it, then let me know that the company rep had e-mailed her the ingredients and she would forward. So obviously the committee did not review the ingredients themselves and the company makes it pretty hard to get hold of them. Surprisingly, the ingredients are not as terrible as they might be, except for the misleading trans fat labeling. The glossy brochure brags “0g trans fats.” Of course, the ingredients include partially hydrogenated oil, so the company is using that less-than-.5g tran- fats-per-serving-can-be-listed- as-0 labeling loop hole. The serving size is 1 cookie. They are largish cookies, but ya, right!
    I am not surprised but feel that it was irresponsible of the PTA not to look at the ingredients in advance. Also, they need to be aware of the labeling loop hole and the concern of many in the mainstream health community, including the AMA, that Americans are getting too many trans fats because of it. http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/On-your-radar/Trans-and-saturated-fats/AMA-urges-more-accurate-trans-fat-labeling. So I am in the process of writing them a letter and including the AMA info. It may not influence them in the future but I just have to try…

    And, as you said, people and even food companies are constantly taking about moderation as if that is the answer, and also insinuating that it is really the consumers’ fault that they are overweight and unhealthy. Even though there is mounting evidence that some of the unnatural ingredients in processed foods actually suppress the ability of people to tell when they are full, cause obesity more readily than other foods with equivalent calories, and act on the pleasure centers of the brain to essentially cause addiction. So, it’s just not only about the sugar content, the calorie content, or having a special treat once in awhile. As you point out, it’s not once in awhile. And these are ingredients that should not be consumed at all, much less in the quantities that most children get them. OK, I’m done ranting now! Thanks for the opportunity to share.

  • Lauren February 21, 2011, 7:30 pm

    “Okay in moderation” is becoming one of my most loathed phrases. It’s what my mom says to me every time I complain when she tries to feed me her cream-of-chicken-saturated casseroles or ten-billion-ingredients frozen pizza. “Oh, come on, Lauren. It’s okay in moderation.” No thanks, mom, I’ll just have an apple…

  • Kristen February 22, 2011, 3:33 pm

    Great post. We typically donate money to the girl scouts in our family rather than buy any cookies. I appreciate your response to “everything in moderation.” I am on the very beginning of tackling that concept at my daughter’s school, winning a small victory with a communication sent to parents from the director, but it is just that — a small victory. I’ve been told that I seem sometimes obsessed with the food choices offered today, but they aren’t FOOD. Instead, it is a mix of chemicals and things created in a lab…

  • alice February 25, 2011, 2:31 am

    I guess it’s all a matter of costs versus benefits. The GS cookie program provides financial education for thousands of girls as well as allowing them to raise money to donate to causes of their choosing (not too mention fundraising for other life-enhancing opportunities like camp, astronomy programs, etc.). Girl Scout cookies are hardly the product with the highest demand for palm oil. I know palm oil is bad, but so is petrolium – it’s unreasonable to have everyone suddenly stop using petrolium products though, just as it’s unreasonable to ask for everyone to suddenly stop using palm oil products. Change is slow, especially when it comes to treasured “traditions.”

    • Christina February 25, 2011, 9:16 am

      Alice, if you read the comments on my initial post and the Fooducate post/Facebook page, you’ll see plenty of stories about how cookie sales do not in fact teach financial/entrepreneurial literacy. The more I talk to people about this, the more I’m convinced that’s a dying lesson. Parents selling cookies at work? Tiny Scouts who can’t do math somehow being able to glean financial skills? Making girls sell unhealthy products for a micro percentage of the profits? None of that seems very helpful.

      As for the prevalence of palm oil/petroleum products: So true, of course. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to minimize use when we can. And Girl Scout cookies are not an essential food, so that’s an easy place to stand on principle, you know? As I wrote in response to a similar point on the Fooducate post:

      “I don’t want to live in a world where people think the problems are so big that they don’t even try to fix them. Yes, environmental destruction is a huge issue. Yes, our food supply is loaded with unhealthful, chemicalized ingredients. But that doesn’t mean we should just throw up our hands and do nothing. Every step counts. And that’s something we should be teaching our kids, too — that values matter and that they can make a difference.”

  • Clay Boggess February 25, 2011, 6:40 am

    ‘Everything in moderation’ is so cliché. It seems to justify everything but nobody ever truly follows it anyway. It just makes them feel better for the moment. We need to learn to be honest with ourselves and what we are actually putting into our bodies.

    • Tina February 28, 2011, 8:45 pm

      I agree. Anything that can be applied to everything has no meaning. But people who say this don’t really mean “everything”; of course they are not referring to things such as poison or DWI. They mean “everything-I-think-is-OK-in-moderation” in moderation. It’s subjective and circular and on both counts therefore meaningless.

  • Rosemary Evergreen February 25, 2012, 1:42 pm

    Moderation, in most aspects of life, is greatly lacking from our modern world. Food-wise, we are surrounded by salty, fatty, sugary foods and beverages at every turn and at every childrens’ activity. Consumer products? There, too, it is the rare household that manages to avoid overflowing piles of stuff, particularly toys. Home design? I think the trend is moving away from McMansions, finally, but few new homes built in the past 20 years could be called moderate. Energy use? A simple call for moderation earns one the title of Socialist or worse.

    It is a rough road to stick to my principles in this environment without my child thinking I am ridiculous or unreasonable. We eat a very healthy diet at home, almost entirely homemade; we conserve resources; we find activities that support our goals. Yet she observes such different choices at the homes of friends or even in the backpacks of classmates, and although I have explained why we make the choices we do, I know that she does not see all of the aspects and results of those decisions.

    She joined Girl Scouts this year – but we discussed the cookies beforehand. I explained to her that I could not in good conscience ask anyone to buy those cookies because of the ingredients and the nationwide obesity epidemic. I asked the cookie person how much our troop gets from the sales and was astonished at the low, low percentage! We will give a donation to our troop instead.

    Frankly, for what those cookies cost, they could easily be made with real and even organic, whole ingredients and still earn money for the organization. Most of the boxes are in the range of a half pound, so they are charging close to $7/lb!

    I understand the difficulty in finding items for fundraising sales, because they basically need to be consumable to be useful to the organization for many years. But I would love to see an end to all food sales for fund raising, or perhaps a move to selling produce. Maybe the Girl or Boy Scouts could start a CSA on one of their many camp properties in range of a metro area, where kids could take turns during the summer, and sell shares to that. Wouldn’t that provide many more lessons than simply selling boxes of stuff that come to them ready-made?

    • Christina February 26, 2012, 4:36 pm

      Rosemary, so true about the moderation mantra in all aspects of life! And I love your CSA idea. Just love that. Would fit right in with the new locavore badge, too. Hmmm.

  • CurlyCounselor February 25, 2013, 3:05 am

    I’m currently an Ambassador Girl Scout (11th grade) and this is my 7th year participating in the cookie program. I’ve been reading through the comments, and through the comments in the first article as well and to be honest it’s disheartening to see what people are saying. Girl Scouts have taught me more than I could ever articulate, and I understand that no one will deny me that fact. However, as a current cookie-seller (I’m in the second week of pre-sale deliveries) I believe that the cookie program has taught me many skills that a lot of people here are dismissing.
    This year Girl Scouts “re-designed” the program. We have now summarized “5 Skills” that the program teaches. They are Goal Setting, Decision Making, Money Management, People Skills and Business Ethics. I can honestly say that I have learned all of those things through selling cookies. It’s not just pretty words, and it’s not little girls sending cookies to work with their parents. Perhaps I have just been blessed with a Troop leader that challenges us to do things ourselves.
    This year my goal is to sell 1800 boxes, last year I sold 800, the year before that 127, my first year I sold around 30. I was recognized last year as top third seller in my service unit. I’ve talked to younger girls, Juniors and Brownies who are in their first years of selling. None of them have ever expressed feeling pressure to sell more because of other girls in their troop. We try our absolute best to make sure that girls understand that the goals they make are for themselves. A lot of the time it’s to fundraise for a specific purpose. I traveled to San Francisco (we were there a week) from Seattle on accumulated cookie money and events that my troop hosted for younger scouts.
    This year I asked my dad if I could sell cookies at his work. Instead of him taking an order form to work, he sent out an email asking if anyone would be interested in buying Girl Scout Cookies and if he could pass on their contact info to me, that’s all he said. I took those interested and sent them my “elevator pitch” (learned about that in scouts) in an email and when the cookies arrived I delivered them in person. Yes, that might be too much for a third grader to do, but it just shows that there are ways to make sure the girls sell the cookies, not the parents.
    There’s many more stories that I could share, some about networking, others about financial literacy, and a ton about other lessons Scouting has taught me. As for the “plenty of stories about how cookie sales do not in fact teach financial/entrepreneurial literacy”, I know there are girls and adults out there struggling with the program. Girl Scouts turned 100 years old March of last year and we’re still working to fix/improve many aspects of the organization. There’s change happening everywhere, both by GS employees and girls advocating for issues they feel strongly about. With enough effort we’ll do more about the “rainforest-destroying palm oil” and create more sustainable packaging. Just don’t be so negative please. Yes, there are two sides to this but understand that things are not what they were in the 70s for scouts.The cookies are unhealthy, but we’re trying.
    One last thing. Many Girls have negative experiences with scouts and not selling enough and feeling pressured and whatnot. The cookie program has helped me feel empowered in bad times in my young life. I know how to do things that many people my age have yet to discover, one being financial literacy. Cookies are positive for me, not because of the cookies themselves, but for all that they have taught me.
    Another success story:

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