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Cathy Erway Headshot

5 Things the Girl Scouts Can Do to Step up Their Food Game

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Cross-posted from Civil Eats

When Katie Francis of Oklahoma broke a record recently for selling 18,107 boxes of Girl Scout cookies in seven weeks, the world took notice. All eyes were on this ambitious young woman with a creative approach and an impressive work ethic. But what Katie might not be aware of is just how different the cookies she's selling are from ones she might bake herself.

Cookie sales as fundraising for the Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) began in 1922, when the national magazine produced by the group included a cookie recipe for local troops to follow at home. Since then, Girl Scout cookies have evolved from a tradition of home baking to a massive national brand. And rather than developing baking skills, troop member now merely need sales skills to move around two million boxes of a few mass-produced recipes every year.

Today, there are two registered bakeries which produce all the Girl Scout cookies in America. Both are owned by larger food conglomerates -- Kellogg's and Weston's, which is Canada's largest food processing and distribution company. The cookies vary by recipe and type, but most are made using a long list of industrial ingredients, including some combination of sugar, partially hydrogenated oils, and preservatives, as well as high fructose corn syrup, added whey, added gluten, dextrose, soy lecithin, sodium alginate, etc.

In other words, these highly-processed, mass-produced cookies are much like most commercial cookies on the market, despite recent efforts -- by troop members and parents -- to change that fact. (The one exception was the somewhat successful effort, a few years back, by two girl scouts to get Kellogg's to source more sustainable palm oil.)

And while proceeds made from Girl Scout cookie sales benefit the local troops' functions (and the scouts, who often receive prizes in exchange for sales), there are many other more direct, cooperative, and healthful ways to support local causes with your sweet tooth. Just head to your local farmers' market or school bake sale to find any number of homemade, individual cookies baked in small batches with care and creativity.

The chorus of Girl Scout cookie critics gets louder every year, but it's not too late for the Scouts to get on board with today's food movement. As the organization claims to teach girls how to "bring their own values to the business world," we thought of a few ways they can reach girls who value real food.

1. GSUSA could organize field trips to the bakeries that produce Girl Scout cookies, including meeting the bakers, packers, shippers, and warehouse staff. (Or, they could go even deeper and include visits to the farms producing the wheat and soybeans that make up much of the cookies' components.) Might this affect whom the Girl Scouts partner with and how they run their operations? Maybe. Either way, the troops would be better informed about the cookies they're selling (and eating).

2. GSUSA could introduce healthier, more socially-responsible alternatives to the current cookie line. Omitting partially hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial flavors would be a big step.

3. GSUSA could support troops that want to drum up fresh alternatives to cookies. What about partnering with a local orchard or berry farm to sell one-time a box of fruit by pre-order? How about selling other seasonal products like pumpkins, fresh garlands, or tulips? The troops could even organize a field trip to pick the fruit or flowers themselves. These are the kinds of products many girl scouts could sell with pride, because they were directly involved in the production.

4. GSUSA could create programs that teach young girls home cooking skills-and not solely for desserts. There could be regional and/or national recipe competitions and cook-offs where girls are rewarded for their creativity and sophistication in the kitchen.

5. GSUSA could encourage girls to get into the garden. Like the gardens in schools, official troop gardens might introduce new fruits and vegetables, and teach young women valuable lessons in environmental science and teamwork, while providing a reason to exercise.

Cookies might be a treat to eat in moderation, but when they represent a national youth development organization, we should expect more than the status quo. It's time to stop denying that solid cooking and agricultural knowledge are empowering for young women, not a thing of the past.

Do we really want more junior door-to-door salespeople who see food as a numbers game? Or can we find a way to build a generation who truly understand that everything they eat is a valuable product of a complex world? GSUSA: I dare you to try the latter.

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