The Girl Scouts have an unusual problem this year: 15 million boxes of unsold cookies.
The 109-year-old organization says the COVID-19 pandemic is the reason. As the pandemic wore into the annual spring selling season, many troops decided not to set up 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," Kelly Parisi, a spokeswoman for Girl Scouts of the USA told The Associated Press.
The impact will be felt by local councils and troops, who depend on cookie sales to fund programming, travel, camps, and other activities. The Girl Scouts normally sell around 200 million boxes of cookies per year, reportedly worth around $800 million.
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 innovative selling methods like 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, she said.
The council is now encouraging people to buy boxes online through the Girl Scouts' Hometown Heroes program, which distributes cookies to health care workers, firefighters, and others.
As of Saturday, the Girl Scouts had sold more than 10,000 packages of cookies through the program.
Parisi said Girl Scouts of the USA did forecast lower sales this year due to the pandemic. But coronavirus restrictions were constantly shifting, and the cookie orders placed by its 111 local councils with bakers last fall were still too optimistic.
As a result, around 15 million boxes of cookies were leftover as the cookie season wound down. Most — around 12 million boxes — remain with the two bakers, Louisville, Kentucky-based Little Brownie Bakers and Brownsburg, Indiana-based ABC Bakers. Another 3 million boxes are in the hands of the Girl Scout councils, which are scrambling to sell or donate them. The cookies have a 12-month shelf life.
Local councils won't be held financially responsible for the 12 million boxes that remain at the two bakers. Both 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.
But it isn't the biggest blow the cookie program has ever faced. It likely came during World War II, when the Girl Scouts were forced to shift from selling cookies to calendars because of wartime shortages of sugar, butter, and flour.