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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.


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