The Girl Scouts have an unusual problem this year: 15 million boxes of unsold cookies. The 109-year-old organization said theis the main culprit. As the health crisis wore into the spring selling season, troops nixed their traditional cookie booths for safety reasons.
"This is unfortunate, but given this is a girl-driven program and the majority of cookies are sold in-person, it was to be expected," said Kelly Parisi, a Girl Scouts spokeswoman.
The impact will be felt by local councils and troops, who depend on cookie sales to fund programming, travel and camps. The Girl Scouts normally sell around 200 million boxes per year, or around $800 million worth.
Parisi said Girl Scouts of the USA did forecast lower sales this year due to the pandemic, but restrictions were constantly shifted and the cookie orders placed by 111 local councils with bakers last fall were still too optimistic.
Of the 15 million unsold boxes, around 12 million remain with the two bakers — Kentucky-based Little Brownie Bakers and Indiana-based ABC Bakers. The remaining 3 million are in the hands of Girl Scout councils, which are scrambling to sell or donate them. The cookies have a 12-month shelf life.
Child labor concerns
The pandemic was one obstacle, but there were other reasons for declining cookie sales. Some local leaders said they might have sold cookies this year but chose not to because of an Associated Press story linking child labor to the palm oil that is used to make Girl Scout cookies.
Gina Verdibello, a troop leader in New Jersey, said her 21-member troop decided to boycott this year's sale and instead held a protest. Verdibello said she knows of at least a dozen other troops that opted not to sell because of the palm oil issue.
"We want to sell cookies," Verdibello said. "It's part of our thing, but this is putting kind of a damper on it."
Rebecca Latham, the CEO of Girl Scouts of New Mexico Trails, said her council had 22,000 boxes left over at the end of the selling season in late spring, even though girls tried selling from drive-thru booths and contact-free delivery. Latham said troops in her area sold 805,000 boxes of cookies last year. This year, they sold just under 600,000.
That shortfall means the council may not be able to invest in infrastructure improvements at its camps or fill some staff positions, Latham said.
Donations to food banks
It's unclear how much of a financial hit the Girl Scouts suffered because of the decline in sales since the organization won't reveal those figures.
In the end, local councils won't be held financially responsible for the 12 million boxes held with the two bakers. Little Brownie Bakers and ABC Bakers said they are working with the Girl Scouts to sell or donate cookies to places like food banks and the military. The bakers can't sell directly to grocers because that might diminish the importance of the annual cookie sales. But they may sell to institutional buyers like prisons.
Parisi said bakers and councils have occasionally dealt with excess inventory before because of weather events like ice storms or tornadoes. But this level is unprecedented.
"Girl Scout cookie season isn't just when you get to buy cookies," she said. "It's interacting with the girls. It's Americana."