There’s more than one way for Girl Scout cookie lovers to get their Thin Mints, Lemonades and Peanut Butter Patties this year.
From now until April 2, Girl Scouts River Valley and over 100 other Girl Scout programs across the nation are adjusting their service format according to area health and safety guidelines.
“We have had no restrictions, knock on wood,” said Tammy Freese, product program manager of Girl Scout River Valleys, which serves girls in Southern Minnesota. “Hopefully we can have that continue.”
Jessica Gillen, manager for the Faribault and Medford Service Unit and cookie manager for Troop 27310, said she was initially worried cookie booths wouldn’t be an option again this year because several grocery stores said no to their the initial request. However, with health and safety guidelines implemented, her troop and others began sales Feb. 20.
Fewer girls have been selling at the tables this year, Gillen said, but a number of them have sold from their own driveways. One of the girls in her troop, who lives on Division Street — a major Faribault thoroughfare — reported selling 78 packages from her driveway Saturday.
“Speaking directly about my troop, they ordered small initially, and they’ve been restocking like crazy, exceeding any of our expectations,” Gillen said. “I don’t know why that is.”
One theory behind the cookie sale’s success, she said, is that seeing Girl Scouts out selling cookies seems like a sign of the world “getting back to normal,” and people get excited.
Girl Scouts launched a Cookie Finder feature on its website, which indicates local service units will set up their next sales outside Fareway, Walmart and Hy-Vee in Faribault and Casey’s in Medford during various shifts Saturday. In Owatonna, find them at HyVee, Fleet Farm, Fareway, Walmart and Lowe’s Home Improvement though dates and times vary.
As a whole, Girl Scouts River Valleys has offered in-person sales to families comfortable with that format. That includes in-person cookie booths, door-to-door sales, workplace sales, and mobile (wagon) sales. On its Cookie Central webpage, River Valleys shares a “Cookie Participation Dial” that indicates the safest format for cookie sales according to health and safety guidance.
For those staying home to social distance, the Girl Scouts offer alternatives to in-person sales online, including Digital Cookie sites for individual Girl Scouts and a Cookie Finder app for mobile devices. Cookie buyers may also text COOKIES to 59618 to access their favorite Girl Scout treats at their fingertips.
Freese said fewer girls are enrolled in the program this year, largely due to the pandemic, but those still involved have been selling more cookies than usual. Comparing total sales in 2020 to previous years is difficult, she said, because COVID-19 cut sales short mid-way through last season.
To continue sales virtually in 2020, Girl Scouts councils across the nation established an online program called Cookies for a Cause. Through this program, Girl Scouts purchased support partner organizations, such as healthcare workers, first responders, military support organizations and workers providing food to students and families in need.
According to a press release, Girl Scouts River Valleys donated 85,600 packages of cookies through donation programs in 2020.
This year, the online sales platform is called Smart Cookies. Although online cookie sales launched several years ago, Freese said Girl Scouts has seen a sharp increase in online activity during the pandemic. With Smart Cookies, Girl Scout clients have the option to request cookies shipments directly to their homes. If they purchase six boxes of cookies or more, Freese said clients receive a direct shipping discount.
Every Girl Scouts River Valleys service unit has the option to participate in the Cookie Cares donation program this year, said Freese. The service units can participate in council-wide efforts to distribute cookies to healthcare workers, food shelves or school lunch programs. Otherwise, individual troops may deliver cookies to local nonprofits. Girls may also donate to their own troop inventory to benefit others in a nearby community.
Gillen said her troop donated extra cookies to Infants Remembered in Silence (IRIS), Ruth’s House of Hope and St. Vincent de Paul last year. This year, the troop hasn’t yet decided which nonprofits to support.
Outside of cookie sales, Freese said Girl Scouts has offered a wide range of virtual programs throughout the pandemic so girls can access activities without leaving their homes. Virtual offerings have engaged girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), art and outdoor activities among other topics, she said.
For her own troop, the largest in Faribault, Gillen said online meetings took over in-person gatherings for the past year. But good news is ahead.
“We are actually going to try to go back to in-person tomorrow (Tuesday), which I’m really excited for,” she said.
The cafeteria was a group gathering place and an opportunity to eat alongside friends, but the pandemic has created a very different environment for school dining this year.
Last spring’s emergency distance learning, hybrid learning and social distancing guidelines have vastly impacted how schools across the country distribute and serve their meals. Sarah Brooks, Owatonna director of nutrition services, and Krissy McIntyre, nutrition services coordinator, recently shared with the Owatonna School Board how different the nutrition services department is this year compared to the previous year.
Services provided by Owatonna’s food service team would not have been possible without the various waivers granted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Minnesota Department of Education, according to Brooks. Currently the district can feed any child under the age of 18 at no charge through the remainder of the 2020-21 school year.
The district saw about a 2% decrease in free and reduced meal program applications this academic year. In the fall of 2020, district officials made extra efforts to reach out to families to get eligible families to apply for these educational benefits like free and reduced meals.
“We believe many families are not actually submitting an application for educational benefits because meals are free,” Brooks said. “However, there could be other things that play into that.”
As expected, the district saw a decrease in the average daily participation for breakfast and lunch this year compared to the previous year. The biggest decrease in meal participation can be seen at the middle and high school levels as students are only in the building twice a week.
Total meals served at Owatonna School District (September through January):
Despite the decrease in the number of meals served, food service staff are still busy serving and packaging food in new ways. Meals have been delivered by staff to classrooms and other socially distanced spaces beyond school cafeterias, according to Brooks. To limit the amount of contact between students, staff are tasked with serving scoops of bulked food items such as cut fruit, vegetables and salad mixes. Staff also package to-go bundles and individual servings for students to safely grab.
Students in the hybrid model are offered in-person meals two days a week and can pick up a three-day to-go meal bundle on their last in-person day to bring home with them. Distance learners are able to pick up to-go bundles on Tuesdays and Thursdays at select locations, Brooks said. In December, the district began home meal delivery with the help of the Owatonna Bus Company.
“This is a great benefit for our families who are unable to access our pick up locations, which we know is a barrier for some families,” Brooks said.
Due to the various waivers provided to school nutrition services across the state, the district was able to provide 55,308 distance learning meals, 9,744 hybrid learning meals and 790 home delivered meals. These meals were needed, Brooks argued, adding that if it were not for the waivers these meals services would have not been possible.