Sunday, February 6, 2011

Girl Scout Cookies: The Foodie Mom's Paradox

“I wouldn’t eat a reduced fat, diet cookie if my life depended on it, but I’ll eat three Peanut Butter Sandwich cookies in a heartbeat.”

This from a friend, who made me pledge like a Girl Scout, that I would not reveal her identity.

The topic was no so much calorie watching, as “bad ingredient” watching, and the subject was one of paradox: how can you bake homemade bread everyday for three weeks, never be without a quart of homemake chicken broth in your freezer, regularly make coffee cake from scratch, and spend as much time online with baking expert Dorie Greenspan as some people spend on Facebook and know, sell and eat Girl Scout cookies?

“Honestly, I don’t even sweat it,” my friend told me when I asked. There is so much “crap” out there, she said--so many school events when someone brings juice boxes with high fructose corn syrup, so many yogurts that should be labeled, “pudding” and so many more times that her family perseveres and eats what’s healthy, that “I put this in with the 10% of our diet that’s... well.....” well, not as good.

What does she see as the dilemma with selling cookies?

“It’s more of a logistical drama. It’s 11 degrees outside; my daughter has a cold and rehearsal. How is she going to find time to sell these cookies?”

Her eighth grader does find time to sell them, and by design, with very little help from her mom. Being a Girl Scout has been a positive experience for both mother and daughter, and cookie sales have significantly offset the cost of yearly trips, or, as with this year, a planned service project to help heart patients.

This anonymous Foodie mom likes the nostalgia of the cookies, the taste of a select few (Thin Mints, Peanut Butter Sandwich and Lemon) and is willing to admit that her outgoing daughter has developed a sales strategy at odds with political correctness, but not reality:

“She told me she prefers to sell to dads. They usually have no clue if their wife has already ordered some and they’ll buy seven boxes. And, you know,” the mom said, referring to an order form “her data supports that.”

Down the road a bit, and a few years more junior in the Girl Scout-Mom experience is Dolores Eaton, who is ok with my using her full name, although perhaps a moniker is just as appropriate: 4 oz juice box.

It was one of those that she picked up at my oldest daughter’s first birthday party when she said, “You know, this is about as much juice as a child should an entire day.”

I didn’t show her the stash of 6 oz ones I had hidden in my pantry, but I’ve often thought of her prescient warning when the dentist looks at my daughter’s cavity-inclined teeth and echoes the same philosophy.

The proponent of 4 oz was a peddler of pastry?

“The overall benefit of Girl Scouts outweigh this one issue,” Eaton said, when I asked her how she reconciled the ingredient list in the cookies they sold with the expectations she has for what she brings into her own home. Along with whole wheat pasta, nothing with high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, or artificial coloring, the packaged cookies she buys and that her kids prefer, show more resemblance to Cool Hand Luke (Newman’s own) than the industrious elves of Keebler.

Eaton would like the makers of the Girl Scout cookies to stop using palm oil, and “in a perfect world they’d change the recipe,” but when it comes to conversations with fellow moms in her troop the issue of ingredients does not come up.

“I’ve had to really learn how to walk that line,” she said, explaining how much she shares her views on food with casual acquaintances, “they’d think you’re a freak.”

Still, “Of all the clubs that are gender specific, that help build character and leadership in a safe environment,” Girl Scouts was one of the best, she said. And she is as selective with how her daughters spend their time as she is with what she’s introduced to their now self-guided food choices. “One physical activity and one club a year,” she said.  Even with those parameters, Girls Scouts (and their cookies) have made the cut.

Caralien Speth, whose five month old daughter is more of a sprout and not yet a Daisy, shares a similar view. With the exception of “lasagna noodles, bread and ice cream” she makes everything from scratch--including beer.

“My daughter is only 5.5 months old, but we plan to allow her to go through Girl Scouts, and sell cookies, if she chooses.”

Could Girl Scouts improve their product? They could, “...use corn based plastics that are compostable...and getting rid of trans-fats (entirely) and corn syrup would be welcomed. Really, however, a little bit of “bad” ingredients annually isn’t that big of a deal if most of what you consume on a day-to-day basis is real food.”

Real food and teaching children how to recognize it is part of the mission of Christina Le Beau, a journalist who writes the blog, Spoonfed: Raising Kids to Think About The Food They Eat.

When a friend asked her if she’d like her daughter to join her Girl Scout troop, she knew enough about Le Beau's passion to say, as she described on her blog post, (Let’s Talk Girl Scout Cookies) :

“I sort of wondered if the cookie thing might be a conflict of interest.”

And, after looking into the subject, Le Beau wrote, 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."

Chris Le Beau, writer of the blog
Spoonfed, with her daughter
For Le Beau, the unhealthy nature of the food is not limited to what some of the ingredients do to the body, there’s the environmental factor of palm oil, and the associated deforestation and problems production brings.

Still, if becoming a Girl Scout became important to her daughter and joining a troop would enrich her life, she told me the cookies are not a deal breaker.

“I’d just opt out. But I would make it clear why. I wouldn’t just go quietly.”

She is not alone. The writers of the blog, Fork and Bottle wrote a post in 2008, shortly after the reduction in trans-fats, with the headline,“Still Say No To Girl Scout Cookies...” They've also included a link to a make-it-yourself Thin Mint recipe.

The Girl Scouts' cookie manufacturers have made some changes in the past few years. First, just before the FDA regulations, they limited their trans-fat to the under 0.5 gram threshold, and now, according to The Girl Scouts' website, one of their suppliers, Little Brownie Bakers, has removed partially hydrogenated oil entirely from some varieties. LBB’s website prominently touts an optimistically (if not overly so) titled informational sheet “Great News for Health Conscious Consumers.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that cookie sales, for the first time in six years, rose last year to $714 million. And, some councils have adopted a “super six” pilot program to focus on the popular sellers—Thin Mints, Samoas, Tagalongs, Trefoils, Do-si-dos, and Lemon Chalet Crème. And, for the first time this year, Scouts can advertise and market (although not sell) online.

Making a profit is not inconsequential to the health of the Girl Scouts. Of the $3.50 paid for one box of Thin Mints, about $.89 goes to the bakery and the remaining money goes to the Girl Scouts local troop and council, according to a 2011 Cookie Program Family Guide.

So, what do the Girl Scouts say when asked about the use of palm oil?

Besides stating that that their bakers and palm oil suppliers are part of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the official website says:

"Our cookie bakers tell us it is still necessary to use tropical oils for the production of compound coating (holding the chocolate on). Many top bakers have tried to stop using it, but without it, their products do not meet quality and production standards."

And, why don’t they, as stated in their Frequently Asked Questions, “....offer cookies that are whole-wheat, wheat-free, non-dairy, dairy-free, vegan, sugar-free, gluten-free, organic, low-carbohydrate, low-calorie, low-fat, non-fat, fat-free, etc.?”

“The demand for specialty cookie formulations is simply not great enough to make it economically feasible to offer a variety of specialty types. Of all the different possible formulations, sugar-free seems to be the most popular, yet in the past, even the sugar-free Girl Scout cookies that have been offered have had to be discontinued due to lack of demand....”

The demand, it seems, even from foodies and many, although not all, ingredient-conscious parents, is for the annual burst of nostalgia and packaged diversion that Girl Scout cookies, in all their sugared, palm-oiled, chocolate-ish-y flavor, bring.

Perhaps people like Christina Le Beau, and the movement of which she is a part, of will set a demand for a more healthful product.

But, in the meantime, the Foodie’s Paradox represents the complexity of parenting. It is not that much different than the one I find myself in when I buy a product I believe in from a store that gives money to causes I do not. Or, when, after writing several posts about the lead contamination in children’s toys, I bring home a wooden craft project that has, tucked within its interior packaging, a formaldehyde warning for residents of California.

How often do I find myself saying: “Thank God for California.”

“Thank goodness for Christina Le Beau.”

And, at the very same time,  in this very complicated world of food and parenting, and raising girls, "Thank goodness for the foodies living the paradox.”

Peanut Butter Patties and Thin Mints
Ingredients: Enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine, 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.


EasyLunchboxes (Kelly Lester) said...

Excellent post! Two points of view so well presented here. I am honestly not a fan of the whole girl scout cookie push for all the health reasons outlined (and these girls could learn the same lessons pushing other, more worthwhile/healthy products or causes), BUT, there are those who choose to support this 'steeped in tradition' fundraising program and your information is excellent food for thought, giving me reasons unthought of before to respect the whole idea. I did chuckle at the hint about selling to dads. I can assure you that this would work in my house (and I say that lovingly.

Theresa said...

Great post, Sarah! And certainly a paradox! As a health-conscious mom and a Girl Scout troop leader, I can tell you that I struggle with this myself. I subscribe to Geneen Roth's guidelines of listening to your body and eating when hungry. So while I prepare a lot of whole foods with my family and also watch carefully what I buy, I am careful to not restrict or deny certain foods to the point that they feel like 'freaks.' So, I like your friend's "10% rule" and I put the GS cookies in that category.

I will tell you that while I respect the Girl Scout's mission to develop girls' courage, confidence and character, I am surprised by some adult leaders who have no idea what their actions are doing to diminish the mission of the organization as a whole. I had to transfer my entire troop from one service unit to another because the leaders of that service unit did not seem to think it was a problem to charge admission to a girl event based on 'a penny a pound.' Yep - they wanted me to estimate the weight of each girl (thank goodness they didn't have a scale) and pay a penny per pound for admission. When I raised a big stink that this method was destructive because it placed a value on a girl based on her weight, I was told to 'get over it.' So...we have a long way to go, ladies!

And...this brings up another pet peeve of mine, which is the fact that children's fundraisers should not present such a paradox - making it a fundamental problem for parents who care about their children's health. The issue in mind: sports leagues that REQUIRE parents to spend their Saturdays at smoke-filled Bingo halls! How does taking mom or dad AWAY from the family and subjecting them to harmful second-hand smoke do any good in terms of promoting the healthy message of physical fitness that youth sports should promote? It doesn't! It's about the money. Plain and simple. I don't care how talented my kid is, I refuse to let them participate in any team that sends this message. I know I'm a little off topic, but you pushed my buttons:-)

Thanks for this food for thought!

parenting ad absurdum said...

Oy! I never even considered this issue - I never was a girl scout and I have two boys. I occasionally buy a box if I come across an especially exhuberant GS - honestly, I'm I big believer that just about anything in moderation is fine.

Sonja Sommers-Milbourn said...

Oh,girl (scout)!
Do I have a story to share about my scouting days when our daughters were small. Wanting to nurture mother and daughter bonding time, I not only took on Chelsea's brownie troop ~ I began a 'Daisy' troop for Molly. I threw myself into the role of troop leader. I stayed up all hours o the night planning dozens of project and crafts, field trips and sleepovers. However, I had apparently missed the entire point of being a Girl Scout. Silly me. I had the notion that gathering up a troop of enthusiastic little girls for fun, as well as learning, was a good thing. Imagine my absolute shock when I attempted to pay for my purchases at our local Wal-Mart and my personal check was denied! Long story short: I had written a check on our troop account to pay for scouting supplies a couple of weeks prior to that. Clueless I was to the fact that a Girl Scout administrator had not only cancelled our bank account, she had withdrawn every penny (girl scout cookie money!). This had put my name and driver's license on the 'bad check' list at the store!
I was furious and humiliated! When I called the council office and spoke with this woman, she said they had considered our troop 'inactive' because we had not sold girl scout cookies that year (all of my scout parents had hugged me when I had suggested that we not sell cookies, but have a token dues to cover field trips, etc.
It all worked out. The council office wrote a letter to the store emphasizing that I was a leader in good standing and that it had been a 'bookkeeping error'.

Rebecca said...

Hi, I just wrote about girl scout cookies yesterday on my "Die, Food Dye!" blog. We opted out for health reasons. As I say in my post, "Everything in moderation" as turned into "Some things, never" for those of us with allergies. I do hope more folks will write to National and ask them to nix synthetic ingredients. I personally don't want my kid eating or selling petroleum cookies. Thanks for writing about it.