Updated on March 5 at 10 a.m. ET
On a Sunday night in February, Jennifer Weiner was craving a very particular dessert: the Thin Mint. The treat, which has been dubbed “the Audrey Hepburn of cookies,” isn’t found at grocery stores. It comes around only once a year. If this were a different decade, Weiner would have been out of luck, but the bestselling novelist — and, more importantly, former Girl Scout — knew the tools at her disposal. She took to Facebook and rallied the troops: “Any Girl Scout parents whose scout want to sell me some cookies?”
More than 1,000 people replied. Weiner purchased more than 250 boxes of cookies, donating the majority to soldiers overseas. “Personally, I capped it at 20 [boxes],” says Weiner. “Otherwise my blood type would be Thin Mint.”
Welcome to Girl Scout Cookie season, when, as 10-year-old scout Isabella Robles says, “everyone just freaks out.” Perhaps you stock up on the delicacies from girls in uniform outside the supermarket, or indulge in leftovers your co-worker brought to the office.
Even if there’s not a Girl Scout in your life, pop culture and social media will remind you it’s that time of the year. The Food Network debuted its “Girl Scout Cookie Championship” last month; Jennifer Garner, a Thin Mint-aficionado, doled out cookies to her fans; Justin Timberlake jumped into the great Thin Mints vs. Samoas debate last week on Instagram (verdict: Samoas). As “Harry Potter” actor Matthew Lewis tweeted, “US sitcom tropes about Girl Scout cookies ain’t no joke.”
The endurance of the Girl Scout cookie phenomenon is somewhat unusual, considering that the organization is shrinking. The Girl Scouts has decreased by more than a million members since its peak in 2003, as children pursue other extracurriculars and parents don’t have the time and resources to run the volunteer-led troops, which spend non-cookie season focused on activities to earn badges in everything from robotics to environmental stewardship to college preparation.
But each year, girls continue to sell more than 200 million boxes of cookies, generating nearly $800 million — sales that surpass not only Oreos, but also Milano cookies and Chips Ahoy combined. This year, the Girl Scouts even released a new cookie called “Lemon Ups,” a lemon treat etched with messages such as “I am gutsy.”
In an era of endless and instant options, why are these cookies still so popular?
In part, it may be that the Girl Scouts have cornered the cookie market. “The impermanence of the cookies inspires people to get excited,” says Elaine Murphy, 32, a freelance journalist and troop leader in Orange County, Calif., and a former Girl Scout. Murphy compares cookie season, which lasts roughly six weeks, to pumpkin spice season, when Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and other popular brands dole out special flavors for fall.
Social media amplifies this attention, as fans share how many cookies they binged and parents link to their scouts’ online stores. Parents with public Facebook pages are now allowed to post links to their daughters’ fundraisers, enabling influencer-parents to potentially dominate the competition.
In reality, the Girl Scout cookie is far from a recent fad — it’s been around since 1917, when an Oklahoma Girl Scout troop sold homemade sugar cookies for the first time. The trend spread by word of mouth until a magazine published the recipe in 1922. By 1939, Girl Scouts were selling Thin Mints (then called “Cooky-Mints”) and, aside from a spell of calendar sales during the rationed years of World War II, became known for knocking on doors to make their cookie pitches.
“There’s just something iconic about the cookies,” Weiner says.
More than 50 million U.S. women alive today were Girl Scouts, according to the organization’s website, including celebrities like Taylor Swift and Meghan Markle. With the Girl Scouts’ focus on service and leadershisp, nearly 70 percent of female U.S. senators and 60 percent of representatives are alumnae. The cookies are branded as Americana: No wonder former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg bought some at a caucus site.
“I used to sell these cookies 60 years ago,” a woman tells Robles and her fellow 10-year-old scout Jamie Perez on a recent Sunday morning. The girls are stationed outside of a Dunkin’ Donuts in Midtown Manhattan, their cookies nestled into canvas wagons. Sparkly and neon-mittened hands by their sides, the girls listen as the woman reminisces about her door-knocking days before selling her two boxes of Trefoils, the shortbreads closest to the original Girl Scout cookie.
A few minutes later, a gaggle of men dressed for the New York Rangers game walk by. “Cookies!” one yells. The girls laugh. They understand the power of the cookies and, moreover, they know how to harness it. Their uniforms are cookie-centric: On top of their puffy coats, they sport polyester vests comprised of a smiling Samoa and a Thin Mint, respectively. Although they’re selling cookies in the cold for the next few hours, Robles tells me she also accepts mobile orders through her online website (for which she has a business card) and, like a good Gen Z-er, advertises the cookies on her Instagram account.
Robles has become somewhat famous for her sales — you can find her photo on the new box design of the Caramel Chocolate Chip cookies, a reward for high-cookie sales. (Only some states sell this gluten-free variety. Two different bakeries make the dozen varieties of Girl Scout cookies, hence the slightly different flavors and names: Samoas vs. Caramel deLites.)
“People think, ‘Oh, Girl Scouts, Girl Scout cookies, that’s really cute,’” says Meridith Maskara, the chief executive of the Girl Scouts of Greater New York.
KellyAnn Cameron, a 25-year-old living in San Antonio, Texas, who was a Girl Scout from age 5 through high school, remembers selling thousands of cookies to fund a trip to Switzerland’s Girl Scout World Center. “I am sick of the cookies,” Cameron says. “I had too many. But I think they were effective for us because people in our community were excited to help us … make something happen for [ourselves].”
Families, moreover, are often excited to pass down the experiences of the Girl Scouts. It has become a “sisterhood,” as Karen Parker puts it. Parker is the mother of Murphy, the troop leader in Orange County. Once a Girl Scout herself, Parker planned a sleepover at SeaWorld and a surprise 98 Degrees and Aaron Carter concert for her daughter’s troop. Today, she helps Murphy run her own.
This sense of legacy, combined with a deep focus on entrepreneurship, distinguishes the Girl Scouts from many other youth organizations today. Although it prides itself on adapting to each generation’s needs (a focus on STEM and sustainability for Gen Z, as Maskara notes), the nonprofit considers itself essential today for largely the same reasons as it has been historically: to give girls a safe space to try new things, build a toolbox of skills and learn from female role models, from the troop leaders to the almost-all-female executive team.
Still, some wonder how much the monetary definition of cookie-selling success excludes communities. Cameron, the 25-year-old, volunteered at the Girl Scout World Center in Mexico after college. She worries that the organization focuses too much on awards and business leadership, perpetuating corporate feminism.
Justine Panian, also 25, agrees. “There’s such a huge disparity in Girl Scouts,” Panian says, noting that the Spanish-speaking parents in her San Diego community refrain from signing up their daughters for an unfamiliar program like the Girl Scouts. Panian, a clinical researcher who plans to attend medical school in the fall, works to combat this by training college women from the area’s low-income Latinx community to serve as troop leaders, breaking the trust barrier and becoming role models for the young Latinx girls.
Murphy is similarly working to make joining a Girl Scout troop more accessible. In Orange County, she founded a troop composed of all girls who were formerly homeless before living at a shelter with their parents. For her girls, the troop is a particularly safe space from unstable and busy home lives.
“I’ve been a lot more confident especially when I joined Girl Scouts,” says 15-year-old Leilah Garcia, one of the troop’s members. “I’m not really afraid to make mistakes anymore.”
The sanctity of this all-female space is something the Girl Scouts is determined to maintain. In 2017, sparks flew between the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts when the latter decided to let in girls, a move that Girl Scouts felt would undercut their organization and fail to provide girls a well-rounded experience because of the Boy Scouts’ main focus on the outdoors. The move, however, may not gain much traction — last week, the Boy Scouts declared bankruptcy amid thousands of lawsuits of sexual abuse.
But the Girl Scout cookies remain free of these controversies. As other American institutions and communities crumble, the cookie represents an era that people yearn for — a time when it was considered safe to knock on strangers’ doors and, as many millennials and older generations describe, when your school, neighborhood and troop were one and the same. “At this moment, when [there’s] so much uncertainty and anger, anything that can take you back to a simpler time or remind you of when things were easier is rare and valuable,” Weiner, the Thin Mint-loving novelist, says.
Others aren’t convinced. “If I had a daughter, would I sign her up for Girl Scouts?” says Megan Brake, 31, from Medford, Mass., who was a Girl Scout alongside the other girls in her Massachusetts neighborhood. “I think a scout helps you build really important bonds of friendship when you’re young. … I don’t know if it’s maintained its relevance, especially with so many summer camps and after-school programs and getting yourself into college.”
But Maskara insists that the Girl Scouts’ particular mission persists. “It’s not just an after-school program,” she says. “It’s a way of life. It’s a value. It’s civic engagement.” And whether or not people follow through with the Girl Scout way of life, participation in cookie sales indicates that they at least like the idea of it.
Last year, Murphy’s troop was selling cookies outside of the grocery store in the pouring rain when something unusual happened. A staff member from the shelter where the girls lived gave $5, but refused the cookies. “Tell your next customer their box is on me,” he said. That shift was coming to a close, so Murphy informed the girls who replaced them. The scouts, cold and wet, were faced with a moral dilemma: Should they pocket the cash or give a free box to the next customer?
Another customer came. The rain still pelted down, but the troop informed the customer that their box was covered. Surprised, the customer handed over $5 and asked that it pay for the next person’s box.
For the next two hours straight, the girls, who would later receive badges in business ethics, stood in the rain. They passed on the message as every customer paid it forward.
Editor’s Note: This piece previously misstated a Lemon Ups tagline.