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Mnookin: Tricky Treats

I loved Halloween when I was growing up. I’d spend weeks, if not months, planning my costume and plotting the best trick-or-treating route where I’d get the biggest, and best, collection of candy. After hours of walking through my neighborhood with friends, I’d eagerly dump out my loot and feel like I’d hit the jackpot.

Since I’ve been giving treats instead of collecting them, however, I’ve had mixed feelings about this holiday. I still love creative costumes, carving pumpkins, and the simple opportunity it provides to knock on neighbors’ doors, but I struggle with handing out candy to kids who eat an average of 24 pounds of it, and close to 50 pounds of sugar, every year. The problem, though, is bigger than Halloween candy. It’s what kids eat beyond Halloween, growing up in what has been described as a “toxic food environment.”

As author and activist, Michael Pollan, asserts in his book, In Defense of Food, “most of what we’re consuming today is no longer, strictly speaking, food at all.” Instead it’s sugar-laden, highly-processed, often artificial, and sometimes genetically-modified “food products” that are sold in convenience stores and eaten on the go, contributing to chronic diseases including Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

I’ve been interested in food systems for a long time, preferring to grow what food I can and to find healthy sources for the rest. My interest was heightened during pregnancy, and as a new mother, I’ve scoured books about “first foods,” and ways to create an adventurous and healthy eater. So, on Halloween, it’s felt hypocritical to hand out candy, and I often offer alternatives instead, such as stickers, pencils, and little boxes of raisins. There’ve been a range of responses, from “I love stickers!” to “are you a teacher?” Usually, though, trick-or-treaters of all ages get so much candy that they appreciate something different.

The Brattleboro community also offers celebrations that don’t revolve around candy and sweets. The Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center creates the Forest of Mystery; the Neighborhood Schoolhouse hosts Enchanted Halloween with fairies and wizards; and Brattleboro’s Rec Department sponsors a “Parade of the Horribles.” But most of these celebrations happen before Halloween, and complement trick-or-treating rather than replace it.

Since my daughter is still a toddler, we won’t be going trick-or-treating this year. But the time isn’t far off when she’ll want to walk around our neighborhood, filling her bag with treats. And I don’t want to deprive her of this enjoyment. But I do I want her to “grow up enjoying sweets without over-consuming them… or feeling guilty or bad about eating them,” as nutritionists Jill Castle and Maryann Jacobsen put it in their book Fearless Feeding.

For a parent, mindful eating is an opportunity both to offer guidance and to grant freedom, which is a delicate balance to strike.

Ultimately, I hope that it’s not only after trick-or-treating, but also while picking raspberries, tending tomatoes in our garden, or smelling the aroma of fresh-baked bread that my daughter will think to herself, “I’ve hit the jackpot.”

Abigail Mnookin is a former biology teacher interested in issues of equality and the environment. She is currently organizing parents around climate justice with 350Vermont, and lives in Brattleboro with her wife and their two daughters.
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