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FOR THE KIDS : Fat-Free Treats Join the Ranks of Girl Scout Cookies This Year : Saturday is start of annual fund-raising sale. Organization was criticized last year for not providing a healthier choice.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s that time again. Just as they have for generations, thousands of smiling, scrubbed Girl Scouts will be fanning out across Ventura County this weekend, peddling those diet-busting cookie delights.

But listen up all you health-conscious calorie-counters: Fat-free is on the way. Sure, you’ll be able to order the same old rich favorites for the next few weeks, but come March the new fat-free cinnamon oatmeal raisin bar will pop onto the cookie scene.

In Ventura County, the fat-free bar won’t even be on the order form when more than 4,000 girls begin going door-to-door Saturday. The arrival of the new frosted bars won’t be heralded officially until the girls begin deliveries March 3. Then they’ll offer them on the spot as they make their deliveries or hawk them at malls, supermarkets and other spots.

Why keep the fat-free goody under wraps? “We didn’t want it to be just another choice--we wanted it to be something special,” said Anne Hackett, assistant director for fund development and marketing for the Tres Condados Girl Scout Council, which includes Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

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And why add a fat-free offering when cookie time has always meant the arrival of such high-calorie favorites as the chocolaty Thin Mint or the chewy Caramel deLites?

“People are buying more low-fat cookies,” Hackett said. “The bakers (of Girl Scout cookies) can see a trend in the industry.”

Maybe so, but last May, the national Girl Scout organization was criticized for its cookies by the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. The group’s publication, “Nutrition Action Healthletter,” called them “some of the unhealthiest cookies you can buy” because of the high fat content.

A four-cookie serving of the venerable Thin Mints still weighs in at 160 calories with a hefty six grams of saturated fat, so news of the new fat-free cookie was greeted enthusiastically by the science center.

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“That’s a huge improvement over the others,” said Jayne Hurley, spokeswoman for the center.

The cinnamon oatmeal raisin bar, which packs 60 calories, and has icing drizzled on the top, according to Jeannie Hwang Ng, spokeswoman for Girl Scouts of the U.S.A.

It’s one of two healthier varieties offered this year. The other, a low-fat cookie similar to a gingersnap, won’t be sold in Ventura County but will be offered in Los Angeles.

The new healthier cookies probably won’t knock the popular Thin Mints off its No. 1 spot. Last year, of the more than 160 million boxes sold nationwide, 25% were Thin Mints, Ng said.

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In Ventura County, about 487,000 boxes of cookies were sold--down slightly from the previous year because of the earthquake, Hackett said. Still, four girls managed to sell more than 1,000 boxes, the top seller being Jessica Bernstein of Thousand Oaks with 1,033 boxes.

This year’s cookie orders will be taken from Saturday through Feb. 12, with delivery scheduled for March 3 to March 26, Hackett said.

The fat-free cookie isn’t the only tradition-breaker with this year’s sale in Ventura County. The Girl Scouts have gone high-tech with an 800 hot line for cookie orders, and their prices have a ‘90s look, going from $2.50 to $3 a box, Hackett said.

Customers now can order cookies by phone--dial (800) 4 U COOKY (482-6659)--and they will be delivered by a Girl Scout in that area.

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“This is our major fund-raiser,” Hackett said. The proceeds help pay for the activities and programs of the local council, which operates two camping facilities. Also, with the increase, the direct income to the troops will rise from 35 cents a box to 50 cents.

Details

* WHAT: Girl Scout Cookie Sale.

* WHEN: Door-to-door sales begin Saturday, with delivery beginning in March.

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* WHERE: Throughout Ventura County.

* HOW MUCH: $3 a box.

* FYI: New cookie order hot line: (800) 4 U COOKY (482-6659).


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