Our Cookie Conundrum: How We Support Scout Values Without Sacrificing Our Own

You can hear the buzz in office hallways, coffee shops, restaurants, classrooms, teachers’ lounges, shopping malls, and social streams - 

“OH MY GAWD IT’S GIRL SCOUT COOKIE TIME!!!!!”

The hype has hit fever pitch as die-hard cookie fans are busily working a Do-Si-Do column into their biweekly budgets.  Restaurants are working them into fancy dessert recipes.  Grannies are filling freezers for family visits and bunco nights with the girls.  Social memes are circulating.  Expectant mamas are having the time of their lives! OMG!

I come from a scouting family of sweet-toothed origins.  My dad was a scout, became the leader of the infamous boy scout Troop 276 in Mississippi, and went on to become a regional councilman.  I call them the “Bad News Bears of scouting”, and my brother can tell you stories that will bring you to tears of laughter…but that’s beside the point.  My brother survived Troop 276 to become an Eagle Scout.  My sister and I had our time in girl scouts.  All of her kids were scouts, with her daughter earning the Gold award and her son earning Eagle Scout.  It’s in our blood.

My faves were, and still are, Thin Mints and Samoas.  Have mercy.

I recently received a reminder from our troop Cookie Mom to sign up for cookie sales.  I remember when we first formed our little Daisy Scout troop, and they were begging for volunteers to run that show…I had a moment when I almost stepped up and took the job.  Knowing what I know now, I am glad I didn’t.  Allow me to explain…

As much as I loved the products, I remember that I did not love selling them door to door (I know, we actually used to sell them to strangers, in person, and mostly without any adult supervision…what can I say?  It was the 70s). After schlepping cartons to scary people in my ‘hood, my parents might have bought some from me to help our troop (mostly to pay for the ones I sampled along the way).  But that is not why my daughter and I are opting out of cookie sales this year.

As it turns out, my little Daisy scout and I are allergic to synthetic dyes and flavors…and unfortunately the cookies are no longer made of just milk, sugar, and eggs.  There’s a little bit of extra magic added to the ever-growing ingredients list now…more on that in a minute.  We generally avoid them, and our friends (read: any possible customers in our social circle) have been supportive of our dye-free lifestyle. I won’t make her sell stuff she cannot eat.

Conundrum.

 

What’s Inside Matters

I admit that I never once read the ingredients on a Girl Scout cookie box until this year.  As I’ve said before, I just trusted the government to protect us from unhealthy stuff and assumed that American foods and unpronounceable additives were tested and safe.  If you have read Why I’m Over This Rainbow, and My Rainbow Connection, then you know about my own eye-opening exploration of the food system.

This is how the cookie crumbles:  Those wonderful biscuits of hope contain synthetic food coloring (Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Blue 1, and Blue 2), fake flavorings (“Vanillin”, fake ginger, fake caramel, fake cranberry), high fructose corn syrup, palm oil, and hydrogenated fats.  And I don’t see GSUSA denying the use of GMOs, either.  Let’s look at why these additives aren’t doing our next generation of movers and shakers any favors:

Food coloring:  Synthetic food coloring is made from petroleum, and is contaminated with carcinogenic chemicals.  Many experts say these non-nutritive additives are linked to hyperactivity, mood swings, ADD/ADHD, bed-wetting, neurotoxicity, genetic damage, and a long list of other ills.  Annatto, a natural food coloring from a plant source, can trigger reactions in some folks, too.

Flavorings:  Fake flavors are going to either be made of petroleum, which in and of itself is enough to make me avoid them… or they are made from bug droppings and beaver anal excretions.  (What, no lark’s vomit?)

HFCS:  High fructose corn syrup has been linked to resistance to leptin – a natural appetite suppressant that tells your brain when you’re full.  Its increase in use since the 70s, in an ever-widening spectrum of foods, is cause to read every single label and monitor your total daily intake of any sugars.

Palm Oil:  Environmental organizations are concerned that palm oil crops are causing deforestation.  This is a hot topic, and deserves further research.  “Using resources wisely” is a tenet of the Girl Scout Law.  Here’s a story of two scouts, supported by Jane Goodall, who are petitioning to have palm oil removed from girl scout cookies.  Leadership within the very organization which promotes it – I love it.

Hydrogenated Fats:  These are vegetable oils mixed with hydrogen gas, and they offer no added nutritive value.  They’re linked with raised cholesterol levels and coronary artery disease.

“Alright, hippie, what’s all the hub-bub about??…It’s just a treat, one little cookie won’t KILL you!”

You’re right, one won’t kill us.  But let’s be honest, Consumer – Who among us can eat just one?  Let her cast the first gym membership card.  I’m all for supply and demand – I have been known to liberate a whole box in a day and a half.  That was back before I learned how food manufacturers use additives to manipulate our palates in the hope that we’ll become addicted to their Mood Morphers (oh, the irony of that name, just kills me!).

And that “sometimes treat” justification doesn’t always work, especially for dye-allergic people.  “Oh just a tiny bit of petroleum, ammonia, lead, and bug droppings won’t hurt her.” For people like us, “Everything in moderation” has become “Some things, never“.  It’s not as easy as spotting that bolded “Big 8″ allergen warning on a label for us dye-sensitive folks (By the way, who do I gotta call to get added to that list?!). 

The “only a treat” excuse is a slippery, chocolate ganache paved slope.  But there’s a bigger issue than just one (or ten) servings’ worth of delicious tradition.  The mixed messages that GSUSA is sending with these unhealthy fundraisers is a question of leadership…more on that below.

I want to hear from those of you outside the US – Do scout cookies in other countries use these additives?  If they have ditched them, has it lowered sales and loyalty?


The Cult of Cookie

Girl Scout cookies have always been a nice post-holiday treat for the grown folks and kiddies to look forward to, and a seemingly innocent way to help a great cause.  The stuff that dreams are made of…character-building all-American ingenuity.  But somewhere along the way this sweet tradition has cooked up such hype that it has evolved into a whole sort of Cookie Culture.  A reason to keep going in these bleak winter months, for some.  Twitter is alight with search results for “girl scout cookie”.  IT’S COOKIE SEASON!  And they’re in ice cream now, too!  The CookieHeads are coming outta the wood works.

How many times can I type the word “cookie.”  It’s starting to not sound like a real word anymore…

I’ve read that cookie sales are the Girl Scouts’ biggest fundraiser, and that proceeds support camps, community service projects, and scholarships for girls who otherwise couldn’t afford to join a troop.  I can get behind that.  I loved the idea of camp, although I admit that I enjoyed visiting my brother’s boy scout camp more than any girl scout camps.  Back then, the boys were kayaking, spelunking, and dancing around roaring bonfires with Native American warpaint and feather headdresses while we ladies were making our 1, 683rd popsicle stick thing. I sincerely hope that has changed since I was a scout…

Investment professionals tell us never to use our emotions to guide our financial decisions, yet nostalgia gets us every time. It’s like how excited I get to see some of my favorite outfits from the 80s making a comeback, no matter how horrid and unflattering those shoulder-padded frumpy sweaters and legwarmers were/are (why can’t anyone seem to get it right in the 2nd/3rd wave?).  It’s no different with the Trefoils, for many.   The cookies represent good memories.  It was Thin Mints for me, all the way.  Yet having a child, while an emotional ride to be sure, pushes me to honestly evaluate my values and financial ventures.

 

Leadership

I will do my best to be
honest and fair,
friendly and helpful,
considerate and caring,
courageous and strong, and
responsible for what I say and do,
and to
respect myself and others,
respect authority,
use resources wisely,
make the world a better place, and
be a sister to every Girl Scout.

Love that “girl scout law”.  I am all over it.  No complaints there.

But are we encouraging them to make the world a better place, use resources wisely, and respect themselves?  I personally think that selling cookies sets an unhealthy and confusing example for girl scouts, as childhood obesity threatens their future.  Our lessons and materials promote wellness and healthy habits, and yet we are pressuring them to sell junk food to help them reach their goals. 

“Through the Girl Scout Cookie Program girls develop five essential skills:

    Goal setting
    Decision making
    Money management
    People skills
    Business ethics”

Scouting is about leadership skills.  Yes, running a cookie business takes leadership.  But let’s be honest, my first-grader isn’t running the show.  She’s not agonizing over budgets, working up advertisements, attending trade shows, talking to vendors and the media, or negotiating board meetings.  The reason GSUSA sells cookies is supposedly to support certain values, reflected in that sweet little law we all had to memorize.  I just think there are other ways we can teach lessons in “girl-led” entrepreneurial and fiscal leadership.

“The Cookies Sell Themselves!”

Girl scout cookie sales enjoy phenomenal success through efficiency, supported by a huge international charitable organization.  And I mean who can’t understand those cute color-coded, columned order forms?  Wanna scout out the cookie sale nearest to your work?  There’s an app for that!  Scouting has definitely embraced new technology.  But how are we teaching our girls business basics when countless parents are hawking cookies on Twitter?

The cookie sale’s popularity and patronage is great for girls, right?  Well, I’d like to add one more “P” to that list – Pressure.  Aside from an external cookie culture and rabid fan base, there is a strong push for the girls to sell.  A whole infrastructure of media campaigns, reward prizes, and exclusive ranks like the “Dough Getters Club” (only for girls who sell 1000+ boxes) sends the message to our girls and parents loud and clear:  SELL!

I admit that I do not approve of any hint of competition in a fundraiser, whether it’s intended or not.  When my daughter participated in her one and only cookie sale last year, she was sad that she didn’t get a cool prize, even though we explained that we were proud of what she did accomplish and that every box sold helps the troop.  I don’t think her six year old brain quite got around that one.  And if I’m honest, I don’t think my thirty-nine year old brain did either.  It’s not our leader’s fault, she is required to ask us to sell cookies.  But for all of the over-arching GSUSA requirements and mob mentality…the hard working troops keep very little of their cookie sale proceeds.

 

Sorry, We Can’t Tagalong

The cookie sales aren’t going away anytime soon, I know this.  They are so much a deep-seated part of our food-obsessed culture that folks now use them as a tool for social change.  Just this month, a controversial YouTube video by a teen protesting the acceptance of a transgendered child into a girl scout troop led to a boycott of cookie sales by some conservative groups.  In response, many LGBT organizations have urged people to buy as many girl scout cookies as they can get their hands on.  And this brouhaha is nothing new.

I like the concept of girl scouts as a whole, and I don’t want to encourage scout-bashing here.  Our leader is supportive of our girls and works hard to find new opportunities for growth and learning.  My daughter is a new scout who enjoys the lessons and earning little meaningful badges.  I want to emphasize that, just as with anything else, your troop is what you make it.  Each troop has its own culture.  So far, ours has not disappointed.

While I often write about putting your money where your values are, I don’t see the cookie sales as a good enough reason to leave scouting altogether.  We opted out of selling cookies.  We’ll just give a cash donation directly to the troop – but it’s gonna have a note to the National GSUSA peeps attached.

 

I admitted I have a sweet tooth.  If girl scout cookies were made with all natural or organic ingredients (like they used to be in the old days!), then I’d probably spend more of my money on them for a “sometimes treat”.  Even if they were more expensive than the cheaply made synthetic ones, it would totally be worth the extra cost to me.  And I’m betting lots more parents would buy them, too.  Are you reading this, National?  (Pretty please??!!)

I am not encouraging all scouts to opt out of selling cookies.  I am saying that you should vote with your dollars.  Ask questions.  Write letters.  Yes, they run a tight ship over there at National.  But we can steer the ship with our choices.  Girl scouts – take heart in the fact that there are more of us women in the world now, and let’s face it – we hold the purse strings.  Here’s hoping that Big Sister really is watching.

What you can do:
Opt out of selling and buying.
Give a donation to a troop instead…It’s healthier for YOU too and sends a message to GSUSA.
If you don’t buy them, tell the troop leader why. Never complain to the scout herself – complain to the leaders or National.
Ask GSUSA to make their cookies organic, or at the very least to omit synthetic ingredients.
Make your own, cheaper and healthier, and ALL YEAR!  My daughter cheered when I told her we can make our own ANY time. Here is a good site to start with…and this one too.
Suggest non-food fundraisers to promote girl-led businesses. With this down economy, I am sure there are creative ways to teach about entrepreneurial and fiscal literacy.

Contact GSUSA:

Girl Scouts of the USA
420 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10018-2798

Telephone:   (800) 478-7248 or (212) 852-8000  

You can also post comments on the GSUSA Facebook page and send direct messages via Twitter

Question: Can your council allow other fundraisers without doing a cookie sale? What other fundraisers have you done?

 

 

Comments
2 Responses to “Our Cookie Conundrum: How We Support Scout Values Without Sacrificing Our Own”
  1. Susan says:

    Thank you so much for suggesting that people make a donation to the local troop and contact GSUSA. I have already committed to making sure that I personally contact National and specifically Anna Maria Chavez, our CEO.

    In our Council in Eastern Pa, your troop needs to participate in both the Nuts about Reading program in the fall and the cookie sale to be allowed to do other fundraisers. There is a list of guidelines for “money earning projects” as they are now called. My girls earned over $13,000 to go to Savannah in 2011 by cookie, yard, bake and hoagie sales. We tried a babysitting night and got 3 kids :( and some generous donations, although Girl Scouts are not allowed to out right ask for donations. My girls now have their eyes on Europe which they are budgeting about $3,000 a person… We need to come up with many more creative ideas that follow the guidelines and generate a profit.

    Thank you for taking a positive outlook on the scouting program that is really benefiting girls and I can only directly speak for my 13 girls and others that I know personally but we will see the influence across our country!

  2. Steph says:

    Great post! I have been struggling with this issue for awhile. I just started a Daisy troop a month ago and, because we’re just getting started, opted out of cookie sales this year. I have some time to think about how I will approach it next year when my daughter – who also can’t have the ingredients you mentioned – will be seven. Like the commenter above, we are required to particiapte in cookie sales if we want to do any other fundraising. This is the only aspect of girl scouting that I am unhappy with!

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