Box Tops for Education: junk food marketing by another name

Box Tops for Education

Image by General Mills via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Andy Bellatti recently posted a piece at Civil Eats (that was also picked up by HuffPost) about the not-so-stealthy marketing of highly processed foodstuffs to kids and their parents. As he describes,

One of the most well-recognized examples of this sort of covert marketing is General Mills’ Box Tops for Education program, which launched in 1996 and has has earned $525 million for participating schools since its inception. The premise is simple: Most General Mills products contain one “box top,” equivalent to a ten-cent donation to participating schools. These can be clipped off and submitted to participating schools via a volunteer coordinator.

What could be wrong with this? As Jean Hopfensperger wrote for the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2012, “While some critics charge that it’s one more example of corporate marketing seeping into the nation’s schools, volunteers who run the programs say cutting box tops for 10 cents a crack is a relatively simple way to raise money for cash-strapped classrooms.”

Nevertheless, as Bellatti notes, “First and foremost, this is a marketing boon for General Mills”:

Dr. Marion Nestle understands why the food industry is so keen on these sorts of programs…. “Get kids to demand that parents buy sugary cereal boxes so they can collect the box tops to be used to buy school equipment,” she tells me. “The schools may get the equipment but the winner here is the cereal company. It sells more boxes and generates great goodwill among kids, parents, and schools, all of them thoroughly distracted from the effect of the products on health.”

As Hopfensperger details,

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., has been trying to convince General Mills to offer more healthy options.

In 2007, the center evaluated the nutritional content listed on the box tops of products ranging from Cocoa Puffs to Bugles, she said. It found that 80 percent had “poor nutritional value.” That was five years ago, she said, so the data may have changed.

“It is not consistent with General Mills’ pledge to not market unhealthy food to children,” Wootan said.

[Zack] Ruderman [director of Box Tops for Education] responded that parents can choose to buy whatever they want, including nonfood items — and that Box Tops for Education does not market to children, but to parents.

“If it’s for parents, why not run it through a workplace, or a Kiwanis club, or some other organization?” Wootan said. “School is where the kids are.”

Indeed, and that’s why the Box Tops program is in schools. For more, check out Bellatti’s full piece here.

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