Family Matters

Halloween Gone Sour: How Kids Are Getting Tricked Out of Their Treats

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What’s happened to Halloween? The celebration of all things sugary has turned sour: dentists are colluding to pay kids for their candy. GreatSchools, an education website, has gone so far as to proclaim trick-or-treating booty an “unmitigated disaster for parents trying to protect their children from OD’ing” on sugar, and offers parents tricks for handling the “upcoming tsunami of sucrose.”

In online forums, moms trade tips for keeping sweets away from kids without their cluing in. One mom says she partners with neighbors to supply trick-or-treaters with only pre-approved (read: yucky) treats. Other parents are more openly Scroogey: one mom torments her kids by forcing them to hand out the candy they collected earlier in the evening to trick-or-treaters who show up later on their doorstep. Yet another mother invokes the “Great Pumpkin,” who swoops down tooth-fairy-style, removing Milk Duds and leaving toys and books in their stead.

I’m unclear what’s so great about this. My kids, at least, have no shortage of toys or books; they do have a dearth of candy, though, which is precisely why Halloween is so great. It’s specifically because we don’t let them gorge on Twix bars the rest of the year that their spooky stash is so special.

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But considering that 1 in 3 kids is overweight or obese, the candy crackdown shouldn’t be so surprising. Try healthy alternatives, nutritionists suggest: pretzels, raisins, cereal bars. If you absolutely must embrace sugar, choose the bite-size candy bars lowest in fat or sugar: Three Musketeers (my favorite!), Butterfinger, Milky Way, Raisinets, Starburst and York Peppermint Patties are all “better choices,” according to recommendations reviewed by a nutritionist at Clemson University.

Better yet, how about you foist all that candy off on unsuspecting children in Iraq and Afghanistan (who undoubtedly have less access to dental care than U.S. kids)? Since 2007, the Halloween Candy Buy-Back has solicited Halloween candy from trick-or-treaters and shipped it to deployed soldiers. “The troops told us that they use the candy to hand out to kids, and the kids give them intelligence in return, like where the bad guys are, who the bad guys are and where bombs are hidden,” says Carolyn Blashek, the founder of Operation Gratitude, which runs the buy-back.

Appropriately, it was a dentist who initially came up with the idea of appropriating Halloween loot. Four years ago when Chris Kammer first put out the word in Wisconsin that he was collecting candy, he received 20,000 lbs. from 300 dentists; last year, 1,700 participated, contributing 250,000 lbs. Most dentists pay kids $1 a pound for their bounty. The response has been so overwhelming that Kammer had to formally cede coordination of the projection to Operation Gratitude last year.

MORE: Trick or Treat? FDA Warns Against Too Much Black Licorice

Operation Gratitude, based in the Army National Guard armory in Van Nuys, Calif., has been sending care packages to troops since the war in Iraq began in 2003. Blashek is not naïve enough to think that the soldiers give all the Baby Ruths and Skittles away, but she doesn’t fret about their health. “As far as the troops are concerned,” she says, “they’re quite active and we don’t have to worry about them becoming obese.” Moreover, dentists are being encouraged this year to include 100 toothbrush/toothpaste sets along with any candy they send. It’s not clear if the toothbrushes are aimed at the soldiers or the kids they woo with the candy.

That seems to be of little concern to the American kids who haul their Halloween stash into their dentists’ offices — they’re miniature do-gooders, some of whom, amazingly, don’t even want to be paid for their loot, says Seattle dentist Troy Hull, who collected 150 lbs. of candy when he first participated in Operation Gratitude last year.

Hull is my kids’ dentist, but I can pretty much guarantee he won’t be seeing them this week. He totally understands. “When I was growing up,” Hull says, “I wouldn’t ever consider giving my candy away.”

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.