SEATTLE -- Next time you crack open a fortune cookie, check the flip side. The federal government may have a message for you.
Tsue Chong Co., a Seattle fortune-cookie factory, is inserting five different census messages into 2 million cookies being shipped to restaurants and grocery stores across Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
Like the usual predictions of wealth, fame and long life you'll find on one side, the census missives on the opposite side are a bit ... well ... banal.
"Put down your chopsticks and get involved in Census 2010," reads one message. "Real Fortune is being heard," reads another.
It's all part of a broader effort by the U.S. Census Bureau to spread the word about the upcoming population count on April 1. The nation's 112 million households will begin receiving forms in the mail beginning in late March.
The decennial count helps allocate more than $400 billion a year in federal funds to state and local governments for things such as public housing, highways and schools.
Census results help determine political boundaries as well as the number of representatives each state will send to Congress.
There's great financial motivation: Each uncounted person means a loss of about $1,400 per year, according to the Census Bureau.
Bessie Fan, co-owner of the family-run cookie and noodle factory, Tsue Chong, called it a "great thrill to partner with the census for such an important effort."
"The census brings advantages we don't think a lot about," she said. The bureau kicked off a $320-million media campaign on Super Bowl Sunday, with ads in 28 languages. The bureau has faced criticism from some who call the ad spending excessive given the state of the economy.
But census officials say getting the word out is more important than ever. Given the fiscal crisis many state and local governments face, they say, it is essential to educate as many people as possible -- including new immigrants -- about the importance of completing and returning census forms.
Ralph Lee, census regional director said partnerships such as those with Tsue Chong help.
With just 10 questions on each form, this census is easy, and safe, he said, because the information won't be shared with other federal or law-enforcement agencies.
The "census" cookies began rolling off the "assembly line" at Tsue Chong on Wednesday -- at a rate of 8,000 an hour.
Timothy Louie,who helps run the company, said the cookies contain six basic ingredients: sugar, pastry flour, fresh eggs, water, coconut-flavored shortening and vanilla flavoring. "It's grandma's original recipe," he said.
The industrial-model cookie machine drops a pre-made shot of batter onto a 3-inch griddle, fits a metal lid on top and sends it down a runway of gas flames.
The cookies take just a few minutes to bake and are flat but pliable when they come out. The machines then place a small paper fortune on each hot wafer, then fold the cookie in half and then quarters, before dropping it into a box.
Those that harden before they can be folded and messaged are called: "unfortunate cookies."
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