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When Parents Scream Against Ice Cream

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NY Times: It's a spectacular day at Harmony Playground in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, with children swinging and running through sprinklers. An "icy man" with his pushcart of fruit ices stands near the jungle gym, as parents look toward the gated entrance. A second ices vendor enters, also setting up shop inside the playground's cast-iron fence.

ice cream man

Vicki Sell, mother of 3-year-old Katherine, tenses when the vendor starts ringing his little bell, over and over, hoping her daughter doesn't have the typical Pavlovian response.

Ever since Katherine had an inconsolable meltdown about not being able to have a treat, Ms. Sell has been trying to have unlicensed vendors ousted from the park. She has repeatedly called the city's 311 complaint hot line, joining parents nationwide who can't stand the icy man or his motorized big brother, the ice cream man.

"I fall into the camp of parents who are irate," Ms. Sell said. She has equal disdain for Mister Softee and the ice cream pop vendor outside the park, but since they are licensed, there is not much she can do about them.

"I feel kind of bad about having developed this attitude," she said. "I want Katherine to have the full childhood experience and all. But it's really predatory for them -- two of them -- to be right inside the playground like this."

Ms. Sell says she is not obsessed with health and nutrition. She -- and others -- feel they have been pushed to the brink by that little bell. Across message boards and playgrounds, soccer fields and day camp exits, parents have been raging. In a greener, more health-conscious, unsafe world, the ice cream man has lost some of his mojo.


In Chicago last fall, the City Council banned ice cream trucks from the 18th Ward after residents complained about unclean vendors, noise and, more troubling, possible drug sales inside some of the trucks.

In Clark County, Nev., home to loud and glitzy Las Vegas, an ordinance was voted in this year to prohibit the trucks from jingling after 8 p.m. in summer.

"I ran into some people who wanted to ban him completely," said Chris Giunchigliani, a county commissioner. "But I didn't think that was fair."

In May, New York City principals received letters from the advocacy group Asthma Free School Zone, urging them to keep trucks from their buildings. "Sometimes you'll see a child in a stroller parked right next to the exhaust pipe of the truck," said Lori Bukiewicz, schools coordinator for the organization, which has been trying to persuade Mister Softee to use biodiesel fuels in generators for their freezers and to get city officials to pass legislation controlling the trucks' emissions. For the last two years, it has been illegal for ice cream trucks in the city to play their jingles while stopped for business.

Parents in most places improvise solutions -- running the other way when they hear the jingle or telling their children that they left their wallets at home.

Rachael Reiley of Cambridge, Mass., called the ice cream truck "the music truck," convincing her 3-year-old son that it was playing "The Entertainer" simply to entertain. But he soon got wise when he saw the other children walking away from the truck, their faces smeared with chocolate and vanilla, their hands filled with ice cream cones.

Ms. Reiley didn't mind buying him a treat, occasionally. But the truck -- called Here's Frosty -- parks outside her door on most sunny days around 4:30 p.m. and wakes her son from his nap. "Then he's up, plastered against the window, yelling: 'Music truck! Music truck!' " Ms. Reiley said. "Sometimes he grabs his little bank and says, 'I have money.' "

As a new mother, she said, people coach you on potty training and what to feed your child. "But the ice cream truck, nobody ever mentions that," she said.

In northeastern Wisconsin, on the social networking site Moms Like Me, a group of mothers shared their ice cream angst in June. "I was amazed at the number of moms who said they hated it," said Laura Kaste, the site manager. For some, the cost was a problem. Another mother was angry that the ice cream man would always arrive right before dinner. Joel Semanko, who owns an ice cream vendor business, Cool Cycles, in Tacoma, Wash., said the dignified, responsible days of the ice cream man cruising into a neighborhood at dusk began to fade in the 1970s.

"There used to be this image that was wholesome and cool," Mr. Semanko said. But these days, in Tacoma, there is a guy in an old mail van with no shirt on, smoking a cigarette, he said. "I heard one kid complain that the guy actually burped on him. That's creepy to people."

Mr. Semanko said his No. 1 reason for starting up Cool Cycles was to change the image of the industry. His franchisees drive motorcycles with side cars filled with ice cream bars. They wear white suits, black bow ties and white helmets or hats. They typically charge $1.35 a bar, since their fuel costs are low, and most important, Mr. Semanko said, they drive off as soon as their line of customers is gone.

That approach is pleasingly old school to Crispin Heidel-Habluetzel, a Portland, Ore., mother of two.

"When we were kids you would either get the ice cream or not and then he would just go away," she said. "But they just sit there now, and it's like an hour of 'Can I have ice cream? Can I have ice cream?' It's really the vulturelike behavior that bothers me."

Jim Conway, a vice president for Mister Softee, said the company encouraged vendors to be sensitive to customers' complaints. But parents, he said, are different from when he was young. Those who dislike the ice cream man, he said, tend to be "New Age parents whose kids can't seem to do anything without them."

But the complaints are not just coming from effete organic-food zealots with too much time on their hands. The 18th Ward in Chicago, which banned ice cream vendors, is made up of working-class African-American families. Ms. Reiley is a stay-at-home mother. Ms. Heidel-Habluetzel is a real-estate agent who is an active volunteer at her children's school. And Ms. Sell owns and runs a restaurant in Brooklyn with her husband, a chef. "I'm not a health freak by any means," Ms. Sell said. "But I notice what happens to my daughter when she eats these sugar-filled things with all these additives."

More refined, and expensive, alternatives have popped up. There is the Parfait organic ice cream truck in Seattle, Coolhaus handmade ice cream sandwiches in Los Angeles and Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream in New York.

According to Mister Softee, its typical small vanilla cone is 170 to 190 calories, not exactly a diet buster. It passes the legal definition of ice cream, which cannot be said of soft serve from Dairy Queen and McDonald's, which sells "ice milk." Mister Softee ingredients include milk, cream, cane sugar, corn syrup, nonfat milk, whey, mono- and diglycerides, cellulose gum , as well as natural and artificial flavorings.

Though most ice cream vendors are defensive about their prepackaged products, Hilary Guishard of Brooklyn, known as Doc, understands the concern of worried parents. Mr. Guishard, who has owned and driven Mister Softee trucks for 32 years, possesses the wisdom of a man who has cruised the mean streets for a very long time. "I empathize with moms when it come to health issues," Mr. Guishard said. Some Mister Softee franchisees can get healthier products, like fat-free ice cream, if customers ask them, he said.

"But moms have a choice," he said. "We should be mature enough to tell our kids, 'No.' "

Wanting the trucks to go away "is not a valid issue," he said, adding, "It's like a mother being angry at a store being at a particular corner." Besides, the ice cream man isn't forever.

"It's summer," he said, sighing. "It's only four months."

Do you think parents should just say NO? Comment below.

Read more hot stories Moms Are Talking About.


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6 comments so far | Post a comment now
Reason and Logic August 19, 2009, 5:04 PM

If you don’t want to buy your kid ice cream, do not buy him ice cream.

It is not up to the city to enforce your wishes because you cannot stand up to your kid.

Instead of trying to be your kids friend, and always buy him what he wants tell him no.

Pretty soon we will have parents suing Walmart for putting toys on lower isles.

Anonymous August 19, 2009, 9:37 PM

Don’t be a weenie, just say no!

Vicki August 19, 2009, 11:28 PM

I am the person quoted in the Times story and I don’t feel my point of view was accurately reflected. My complaint about the ice vendors is that they are unlicensed and illegally sell to children in a place they are not allowed. They have had the scoop out and are about to serve my 3-year-old before I make it to the scene. I called 311 once (not multiple times) to inquire about their legal standing. They do not have sanction from any health authority to handle food and there’s no telling where their product comes from. I had hoped that would be played up in the article. And yes, I do feel that bringing these carts into the playground is predatory. They are run out over and over by the police or parks people but come back time and time again. I don’t have any problem with legal vendors outside the playground in areas they are licensed for — despite what the article says. I’m all for people making a living and for people to choose the time and the place to buy treats for their children. We eat plenty of ice cream and I don’t have a vendetta against Mister Softee. I did discuss these points for the article but I don’t see them there. In fact while I was being interviewed we bought ice pops for our children from a licensed vendor

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