As American as Girl Scout Cookies

AT this time of year, the expression ``as American as apple pie'' seems a relic of a bygone, a la mode era. The treat that flies highest in the national consciousness is surely the Girl Scout cookie. Americans take it as their civic (and consumer) duty to support the scouts by buying and eating cookies. Last year a record 163 million boxes were sold nationwide, a nearly 70 percent increase over 1979. Many waist lines are sacrificed for what scout leader Laura M. Watkins calls ``calories for a cause.''

``When you buy a box of cookies, you're really buying the Girl Scout program,'' says Ms. Watkins, the executive director of the Boston-based Patriots' Trail Girl Scout Council. ``So in a way, you get a treat with your donation.''

How popular is cookie-based philanthropy in the greater Boston area? ``Are you ready for this?'' Watkins asks gleefully. ``Last year we sold 54 cookies for every man, woman, and child in our jurisdiction. We'd like to reach 60 this year.'' The average number of boxes sold per scout is about 90.

To some degree, the cookies sell themselves. In fact, when potential customers are missed, not a few call scout offices and express disappointment in being overlooked.

The Girl Scout cookie campaign has become a national tradition, a happening steeped in familiarity. But how much does the public really know about this activity? Try this quiz and compare your responses to the answers provided with assistance from Girl Scout officials.

Are cookie sales as old as the Girl Scouts organization?

Possibly. The scouts were founded in 1912, but the first councilwide sale of commercially baked cookies didn't occur until 1934 in Philadelphia. Homemade cookies were sold before that, but w details are available.

How is the sale organized, nationally or regionally?

In the latter manner. Girl Scouts of the USA, the national organization, certainly plays a role, but for the most part, the sale is handled on a council-by-council basis. There are 333 councils in the United States.

When are cookies sold?

In most areas, the ``season'' runs roughly from mid-January to early April. But there is no prescribed period and each council is free to choose its own dates. The only stipulation is that cookies are sold during just one part of the year. That way, the activity remains special.

True or false: There is no variation in the product sold.

Not exactly. The same raw ingredients are used in three mandatory cookie types (Thin Mints, shortbread, and peanut butter sandwiches), but the way they are put together varies by manufacturer. Little Brownie Bakers of Louisville, Ky., and ABC Interbake Foods Inc. of Richmond, Va., are licensed by Girl Scouts USA, and Consolidated Biscuit of McComb, Ohio, will come on board next year. (Licenses are issued for two years and are based on capacity and performance.) Except for the different bakery logos, the package designs are identical nationwide. Some of the product names, however, differ for generic cookie types, and there are various optional cookies for which recipes are not shared.

Where does the money go?

The Girl Scouts don't give out the exact figures, but typically they might get $1.50 of the cost of a $2.50 box (prices vary). This ``donation'' is divided between the council headquarters, where much programming is initiated, and the individual troops, consisting of an average of 18 scouts.

Which are the best-selling cookies: peanut butter sandwiches, Thin Mints, or shortbread Trefoils?

Thin Mints win, hands down, accounting for roughly a third of the nationwide sales. ``It's not unusual for us to have an individual consumer buy a [12-box] case of Thin Mints,'' says Watkins. In all, a council may sell seven different types, all made without preservatives, in any given year.

Who is responsible for the selection of cookies?

In terms of the optional types, it's up to the bakers, who know what's hot in the industry. ``They also listen very closely to the councils, their customers,'' says Deborah Mason, manager of media relations for Girls Scouts USA. New products are introduced periodically.

True or false: Scouts of all ages participate in the sale?

True, girls from six (Brownies) to 17 (senior scouts) get involved with parental permission. Besides generating revenue for programs and activities, the sale is considered an important educational tool for teaching courtesy, responsibility, goal-setting, business principles, and safety. Achievement patches are a common incentive and camp credits can be earned in some cases.

Are there any creative uses for Girl Scout cookies?

Why, of course. The Patriots' Trail sale kicked off this year with a cookie sculpture contest. Leading Boston hotels and bakeries were invited to submit entries. The winner was the Westin Hotel for its rendition of the Boston Public Gardens, made with 27,684 cookies.

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