Where I live Girl Scout cookie season finally is beginning to wind down. The boxes I purchased from neighborhood children have been delivered and this past weekend only one troop had set up stands on downtown street corners. Last March, after my family polished off a bunch of cookies that—but for the Girls Scouts—they wouldn’t have eaten, I resolved henceforth to be merciless in saying NO to the cookies and instead offering to make an outright donation. But when two kids who live across the street came knocking eight weeks ago, I balked at the prospect of appearing unneighborly or telling the girls I would rather just write a check than buy what they were selling. So I dutifully ordered two boxes from each of them. By my very rough estimate, that’s 5,600 calories of pure junk. If prior years are any indication, we’ll eat the Girl Scout cookies in addition to—not as a substitute for—the other sweet treats we consume. Perhaps, however, I should just be relieved that we made it through cookie season with only four boxes. One year we somehow ended up with twenty (read 22,400 calories).
How do the Girl Scouts get a pass on the reality that they fund their activities by peddling junk food? Elementary schools have gone from a “healthy food only” policy at class parties to a “no food” policy, and pity the parent who tries to celebrate a birthday with cupcakes. School cafeterias are revamping their menus. Michelle Obama (who, like all First Ladies since Lou Henry Hoover, is the Girl Scouts’ Honorary National President) appears on the Disney Channel exhorting kids to eat right and exercise. Why are the Girl Scouts exempt from this nationwide campaign against obesity?
I can think of at least three reasons. First, criticizing the Girl Scouts seems as un-American as complaining about Mom and apple pie. Second, the economic effects of a Cookie War would be devastating for the Girl Scouts. In 2010, the Girls Scouts sold almost 200 million boxes (read 2,240,000,000 calories). Total sales were $714 million, with $415 million going to local councils. Unless the Girl Scouts could radically rethink their funding sources, a world without cookies might mean a world without Girl Scouts. Most scouting enthusiasts would likely argue that the benefits provided by the Girl Scouts outweigh any harm caused by 200 million boxes of cookies. Maybe they would be right, but I am not certain how to establish who would have the better side of this argument. Third, Americans have a notoriously complicated relationship with food, particularly nostalgic food. This is why when I express surprise that a friend who is adamant about eating only organic food helped her daughter sell cookies, she can reply “They’re Girl Scout cookies,” as though that resolves the inconsistency.
This nostalgia also helps explain why the Girl Scouts are able to sell 200 million boxes. A lot of us probably would not want even four boxes if we were tasting Girl Scout cookies for the first time, either because they would fall short of our culinary expectations or because we would actually be deterred by the 5,600 calories. But of course most of us tasted Girl Scout cookies for the first time in elementary school or earlier, so a combination of nostalgia and the cookies’ once-a-year availability dampens any foodie criticisms or concerns about healthy eating.
The Girl Scouts’ ability to remain above the food fray is troubling. Twenty years from now, today’s elementary school students will have no expectation that they should celebrate their own children’s birthdays by sending in cupcakes and at least some of them may have internalized various messages about exercise and healthy eating. But they are likely to be as nostalgic about Girl Scout cookies as most of us are and thus the Girl Scouts can continue to count on 200 million boxes. Good for the Girl Scouts; not so good for the nation’s waistline.