Thin Mints, Samoas, Peanut Butter Patties… Girl Scout cookie selling season is underway. This year, however, it kicked off with some unwanted controversy. No, not the hullabaloo about the Girl Scout who was rebuked for trying to sell cookies online. I’m referring to the ruckus that followed a CBS Los Angeles story that investigated what happened to 13,200 boxes of “perfectly fine” – not even expired – Girl Scout cookies. Reporter David Goldstein tracked the cookies back to the Girl Scouts of San Gorgonio Council in Redlands, California, and got video footage of a tractor crushing the boxes before they were sent to the landfill. A worker looking on joyfully cheered “Goodbye, Girl Scout cookies!”
According to the Washington Times, sources at the Girl Scouts of the USA office in New York stated that there isn’t an organization-wide policy for disposing of unsold cookies.
This controversy may change that, especially as awareness grows about America’s food waste problem (Between one-quarter and one-half of the US food supply is squandered each year).
To get a better insight into this cookie controversy and what it says about the state of food waste in the US, and the opportunity that it presents to the Girl Scouts, I contacted Dana Gunders, a Project Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Gunders, who has emerged as a national expert on food waste, recently authored an NRDC issue paper on the subject.
Dana, what can the controversy over the discarded boxes of Girl Scout cookies tell us about the US food waste problem?
That it’s more complicated than we think! Here the Girl Scouts faced a problem almost all food companies know well – having to forecast what their demand will be. They would rather overestimate than fall short on their order so that they don’t lose a potential sale. There was even more incentive to overestimate because the supplier, in an effort to offer good customer service, was willing to take back unsold product. All the economics pointed towards erring on the side of more food, not less, even if some might get wasted.
The product could have been donated, of course, but that takes extra effort and sometimes brands don’t want their product donated for fear of liability or brand dilution. Limitations like this can and should be overcome, particularly when we have a federal law, the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act that protects businesses from liability for food donations.
Another interesting aspect of this story is that food banks may not have even wanted to receive those cookies. There’s a movement by food banks away from products high in sugar and fat in order to offer healthier food to those they serve, and some food banks no longer accept certain baked goods.
What can this incident tell us about the US and global food system?
Waste is deeply rooted within the economics of our food system. At the core, it makes perfect business sense for a business to reduce its own waste, but to try to sell as much as possible to those further down the supply chain – whether or not they need it. This is true for manufacturers like ABC Bakery, who encouraged the Girl Scouts to order more cookies by offering to take some back if they didn’t sell. It’s also true of our grocery stores, who aim to sell us as much as possible regardless of whether we actually will eat it. That’s why we need to be smart shoppers and buy only what we know we will eat each week.
This isn’t the first time Girl Scout cookies have come under fire. Does this situation present an opportunity for the Girls Scouts and their environmental stewardship efforts?
Absolutely! Just as the Girl Scouts took a stand against allowing palm oil in their cookies to contribute to deforestation, they can use this as an opportunity to raise awareness of the significant environmental impacts associated with wasting food. For example, throwing out just one hamburger wastes as much water as a 90-minute shower because of all the water it takes to produce that hamburger. The Girl Scouts are the perfect ambassadors to help themselves, their families and all of us respect what it takes to get food to our tables and reduce food waste across the country.
And just to make sure we end on a sweet note, what is your favorite Girl Scout cookie?
Hands down, it’s Thin Mints. I grew up with a box in the freezer at all times (where they never go stale, by the way)!