I was talking to a friend about Brownies. The Girl Scout kind. Her daughter had just joined a troop, and, remembering how much I’d loved camping and earning badges as a Girl Scout myself, I asked for details, thinking my daughter might like to join, too.
I’d kind of forgotten about the cookies.
Years ago, before I got squicky about things like refined sugars and oils, GMOs and chemicals in my food, I thought nothing of buying a few boxes from co-workers and neighborhood kids. Then I learned what‘s in Girl Scout cookies (including pesticide-laden cottonseed oil and eco-nightmare palm oil), lost my taste and haven’t thought about them since. My daughter, Tess, has never had a Girl Scout cookie. We don’t have family or friends who pester us to buy them. (I haven’t seen a door-to-door Girl Scout in forever.) And when we’ve walked by the tables local troops set up outside banks and stores, we’ve just smiled and kept going.
So when my friend mentioned that if my daughter joined, she’d be starting in the midst of our region’s cookie sales, I had one of those huh moments. Huh, I’d better look into this. And gee, I wonder if we’re allowed to opt out. “I sort of wondered if the cookie thing might be a conflict of interest,” my friend joked (sort of), when I said that I needed to think things through.
Turns out you can opt out, though the Girl Scout website makes you feel like a loser for even considering such a thing. But I decided to wait anyway. Tess already has art and sewing classes besides school, and sometimes swimming lessons, too, and that’s all plenty. But, really, I just need time to think about the cookies.
Oh, there’s no way I’d let her sell them. Our food habits are far from perfect (whatever that means). But I’d feel like a hypocrite. Or a drug dealer. Go on, tell me I’m overreacting. But, seriously, I couldn’t in good conscience let my daughter sell something I believe to be patently unhealthy. (Just as I’m not a fan of donating Girl Scout cookies to food pantries.) And not that I’ve personally tasted one lately, but people tell me the cookies aren’t even that good. Maybe that’s because of ingredient changes. Or maybe because when you eat more real food, you lose your taste for crap. But, no matter. No selling.
But is that all? Do I just quietly opt out and let Tess enjoy the many great things the Girl Scouts do offer? Or do I talk to the council, the troop, whoever makes these decisions, about some fundraising alternatives? I mean, even if you don’t want to consider the ingredients, there’s the money thing: While about 70% of cookie proceeds go to the local council, individual girls and troops keep only 10% to 20% of the price of each box. And it’s not like the girls gain any values lessons here, as they could with, say, selling seed-starting kits or fair-trade goods. Seems we could do better, yes?
But then what? Do I raise a stink at higher levels? Try to get the Girl Scouts of the whole U.S. of A. to see that forcing little girls to shill nasty, unhealthful cookies hardly upholds the ideals of an organization that published a report called “Weighing in: Helping Girls Be Healthy Today, Healthy Tomorrow”?
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a 2006 op-ed called “Killer Girl Scouts” that set the Nanny State complainers abuzz. My favorite part:
“Maybe it’s unfair to pick on the Girl Scouts, because trans fats are all around us. But that’s the problem we have in risk assessments. There are certain kinds of risks – say, fears of Saddam Hussein – that galvanize us to mobilize an army and devote $1 trillion to confront the challenge. Meanwhile, we do nothing about threats that are much more likely to kill us – like trans fats peddled by cute little girls.”
This was before the Girl Scouts toned down the trans fats in their cookies. But trans fats are still in there. Along with all the other unhealthy oils, refined sugars, and artificial colors and flavors. A sampling:
Thin Mints: enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), sugar, vegetable shortening (palm and/or partially hydrogenated palm kernel oils), cocoa (processed with alkali), caramel color, contains less than 2% of: high fructose corn syrup, whey, salt, leavening (sodium bicarbonate), soy lecithin, natural and artificial flavor, peppermint oil. (This version is from ABC Bakers, one of two bakeries authorized to make Girl Scout cookies.)
Dulce de Leche: enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate [vitaminB1], riboflavin [vitamin B2], folic acid), soybean and palm oil, dulce de leche flavored drops (sugar, palm kernel and palm oil, anhydrous dextrose, nonfat dry milk solids, reduced mineral whey powder, cocoa butter, yellow #5 lake, yellow #6 lake, blue #2 lake, soy lecithin, natural and artificial flavor, salt), sugar, brown sugar, contains two percent or less of high fructose corn syrup, natural and artificial caramel flavor, salt, natural and artificial flavor, cinnamon, baking soda, whey protein concentrate.
The Scouts should be careful what they ask for, or they might end up with whole troops like these two savvy 12-year-olds, who created an alternative fundraiser and education campaign after learning that the cookies contain rainforest-destroying palm oil. Maybe it’s time the rest of us cast a critical eye, too.
Journalist Christina Le Beau blogs about food literacy and sustainability at Spoonfed: Raising kids to think about the food they eat. Recent posts: explaining GMOs to a kid and deconstructing food dyes .
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