To earn their Girl Scout Bronze Award four years ago, Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva set out to study orangutans.
Instead, they wound up investigating Thin Mints, Trefoils and Samoas.
What they uncovered soured them on the sweets and has put the Michigan teens at odds with Girl Scouts of the USA. Now they're on a march to change the recipe for Girl Scout cookies.
Their target: palm oil, which can come from places the primates live.
The girls, who have been scouts since they were five, have rallied troops across the country. Scouts sold 198 million boxes of cookies last year, but now some say they're done. Scouts and leaders have criticized their nonprofit organization on Facebook and Twitter.
"My troop is up in arms," says Nicole Bell, a Lansing, Kan., leader and former scout. "They do not want to sell cookies next year."
The Girl Scouts organization says its bakers have told them there isn't a good alternative to palm oil that would ensure the same taste, texture and shelf life. "Girls sell cookies from Texas to Hawaii and those cookies have to be sturdy," says Amanda Hamaker, product sales manager for Girl Scouts of the USA.
Rhiannon, 15, and Madison, 16, both high school sophomores, met in sixth grade. Having already earned a slew of badges, from horseback riding to pets, they decided to work together for their Girl Scout Bronze Award, the highest honor a Girl Scout Junior can earn.
Inspired by Jane Goodall's work with chimpanzees, the girls sought to raise awareness of endangered orangutans. They learned that orangutan habitat in Southeast Asia is disappearing, partly because some rain forests have been cleared for palm oil plantations.
The girls presented their findings to youth groups and created a website about the animals. They also started checking for palm oil on food labels and stopped eating anything containing it.
Joan Crimmins, Madison's mother, says she changed her shopping habits because of her daughter. When an aunt brought Madison an ice cream cake for her 13th birthday that contained palm oil, she burst into tears.
The girls collected their Bronze Award in 2007 and prepared for the cookie-selling season. When their cookies arrived, they turned over the boxes and read the ingredients. There it was: palm oil.
"Both of us were disheartened and upset," says Madison. "But we also felt empowered that we could do something to change it."
Girl Scouts have been selling cookies since 1917. Today, all 16 varieties contain palm oil. Last year, troops sold $714 million worth of cookies, most of which goes to the nonprofit councils under which troops are organized.
Cookie dough has come under heat before. Until 2006, the cookies contained partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, but the scouts switched to palm oil so the cookies would be free of trans fat.
Hoping to help orangutans, the Michigan teens want the Scouts to either remove palm oil entirely from cookies, or use sustainably grown palm oil.
But bakers say there isn't enough. "Only about 6% of today's global supply of palm oil is sustainably grown," says Kris Charles, a spokeswoman for Kellogg Co., whose Little Brownie Bakers division is one of two makers of Girl Scout cookies.
Madison and Rhiannon raised the issue with fellow scouts in the Ann Arbor, Mich., area. The head of their council wrote to Girl Scouts of the USA seeking a hearing.
In 2008, the girls borrowed an office at school for a conference call. They say they mostly listened as Girl Scout officials explained there's no viable alternative to palm oil. The scouts say they were offered a follow-up call with bakers.
That call never happened, despite emails Madison and Rhiannon say they sent. "So we turned to other organizations to raise the volume," Madison says.
Last year, after Rhiannon returned from a year living in China, the girls returned to their project, approaching activist groups. The Center for Biological Diversity, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Rainforest Action Network wrote letters asking the Girl Scouts to change recipes.
Michelle Tompkins, a spokeswoman for Girl Scouts of the USA, says the organization has no record of receiving emails from the girls after the conference call, but only heard from activist groups.
The girls, who remain scouts, recently reached out again and plan to meet with Girl Scouts officials in New York City next week.
Early this year, the Rainforest Action Network started urging bloggers to write about the matter. This month, the group helped the girls launch a campaign in which current and former scouts and leaders posted messages on the Girl Scouts' official Facebook page expressing displeasure with palm oil.
Within hours, Girl Scouts of the USA removed the postings and put up its own statement, under which new posts could be added.
Rhiannon and Madison say the move amounted to censorship. Ms. Tompkins, of the Girl Scouts, says "People weren't responding in the proper threads, some of it was spam and some messages were abusive."
Madison has some misgivings about the way the cookie crumbled. She says she misses selling cookies and wishes she could eat one free of palm oil. "Peanut Butter Patties are the best," she says.
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