Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Halloween dilemma

September is drawing to a close, and that means that stores are beginning to gear up for Halloween, with prominently placed displays of candy and costumes. (Well, actually, they've been doing this pretty much all throughout September; I just do my best to ignore it while it's still technically summertime.) In preparation for the annual candy-fest, I received a bulletin last weekend from Global Exchange, a Fair Trade organization, announcing a month-long program about choosing Fair Trade goodies for Halloween. This is an idea that I like in theory but have some problems with in practice, because the Fair Trade treats this site is promoting are Equal Exchange chocolate minis, which cost $35 for a box of 150 (the smallest size they offer). Now consider that last year, I paid just $4 (on sale) for two bags of mini Snickers bars from M&M Mars. This company is not 100% Fair Trade, but it got more than 20 percent of its cocoa last year from certified sustainable sources, making it the largest buyer of sustainably sourced cocoa in the world and putting the company ahead of schedule to reach its goal of 100 percent sustainability by 2020. I suppose you might argue that, for a product that's 100 percent sustainable instead of 20 percent sustainable, I ought to be willing to pay 5 times as much—but that would still be only $20, not $35 plus shipping. And sustainable treats from other companies, like Endangered Species chocolate, Divine, and Dagoba, are equally expensive or more so.

Now this week, Green America has stepped up to propose other alternatives. The bi-monthly Green American, which arrived in my mailbox on Friday, has an article on ways to "Green Your Halloween," starting with ditching candy in favor or "healthier treats and non-food 'treasures'" that are "recycled, natural, or sustainably sourced." It profiles Corey Colwell-Lipson, the founder of Green Halloween, who says that she founded her group because of concern about how candy harms children's health. The article cites the statistic that "One out of every three children is overweight, and the same number is expected to develop diabetes in their lifetime" as a result of "poor eating habits." The article doesn't attempt to explain exactly how a once-a-year candy splurge on Halloween qualifies as a "habit" that is supposedly responsible for child obesity and rising diabetes rates, but it does claim that when kids attending Green Halloween events see the alternatives to candy the group offers, "from polished stones and seashells to temporary tattoos and friendship bracelets," they invariably plump for these in place of candy. "[T]housands and thousands of kids came by," Colwell-Lipson claims, "and not one single child of any age, toddler to teen, said that they would rather have candy when they saw the alternatives. Not one."

Somehow, I can't help being just a bit skeptical about that claim. I realize it's been about 25 years since I last went trick-or-treating, but casting my memory back, it seems to me that if one of my neighbors had offered me a polished rock in place of a lollipop, I'd be pretty cheesed off. In fact, there were always a few killjoys who gave out things like colorful pencils instead of treats, and while my classmates and I generally refrained from TP'ing their houses, we certainly didn't respond with wild enthusiasm. Sure, I might have gladly forgone the candy in favor of something really cool, like a book or a little toy, but the problem with this is that even really cheap toys, such as you might find at the dollar store, are going to run about a buck apiece, while mini Snickers bars cost as little as eight cents apiece. And the same problems apply to pretty much all the items on the list of alternative treats proposed on the Green Halloween website. Either they're way more expensive than traditional candy (e.g., recycled glass tiles) or they're just, not to put too fine a point on it, lame (e.g, acorns, no matter how much they insist that "kids love items from nature"). A few of their suggestions (like toothpaste and miniature boxes of organic raisins) manage to fall into both categories.

So are there any realistic options for Halloween treats that are healthier and/or more sustainable, yet won't break the bank? In the past, it might have been possible to distribute homemade goodies, like popcorn balls or pumpkin seeds, but nowadays paranoid parents would snatch those away and dump them straight into the trash for fear of poisoning (even though there's no evidence that this has ever actually happened, even once). Even the CDC explicitly warns kids to "eat only factory-wrapped treats." So any homemade edibles are clearly out of the question. And any "factory-wrapped" edibles, such as the ones suggested on this site, are almost certain to cost more than mini candy bars. (Most of them have more calories, too, so it's questionable how much they'll actually help to reduce childhood obesity.)

The list of non-food treats on the same site includes some that are more reasonably priced, but most of them decidedly fail the coolness test. Of all the items on the list, these are the only ones that look both comparable to candy in price and likely to pass muster with kids of trick-or-treating age (which, in our area, can be anywhere from 3 to 16):

  • Glow sticks. A flier we recently got in the mail advertised 5-packs of glow necklaces for $1—about twice as costly as a mini Snickers, but not so expensive as to be completely unreasonable.
  • Temporary tattoos. (Stickers would also fall within the cost limits but are likely to be rejected as lame by kids over 10.)
  • Coins. A quarter is likely to be more enthusiastically received than a Tootsie Pop—but that's because it's worth a lot more. A dime probably won't generate much excitement. So once again, this option means shelling out more per trick-or-treater.
  • Used books. This one could be really cool in theory—I would have been a lot more excited as a kid to get a book while out trick-or-treating than a candy bar—but I recognize that not all kids would be equally enthused. Also, to make it work, you'd have to have a wide selection of books so that you could dole out age-appropriate selections to a wide range of kids. And to make it cost-effective, you'd have to be able to pick up a whole lot of books really cheaply—and have a way to get rid of whatever was left over come November 1.
Now, as it happens, I actually do have in my possession a fairly large collection, not of books, but of old Cricket magazines—accumulated during my childhood and only recently cleared out of my parents' house. My original plan was to give them to nieces and nephews for Christmas. But I've started wondering: would it actually be feasible to give these out to trick-or-treaters? Back when I was subscribing to Cricket, before it was split into two separate magazines for the under-9 and over-9 sets, the material was aimed at kids anywhere from age 5 to age 12, which covers most of the range of trick-or-treating age. The question is, would kids actually appreciate getting these? Would they, as Colwell-Lipson suggests, actually prefer them to candy? Or will they, instead, mentally classify me as I did the prissy neighbor who handed out pencils in lieu of goodies?

I'm kind of tempted to put this question to a practical test. I'd greet trick-or-treaters at the door on the 31st with two containers—a bowl filled with my usual mini Snickers treats, and a box of Cricket magazines—and offer them the choice: "Which would you like? Candy, or a magazine full of stories for kids?" Then I'd keep notes on how many kids opted for each choice, and based on the results, I'd have some idea whether to continue seeking out creative ideas for future Halloweens—or just stick with the Snickers bars, which I know won't get any complaints.
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