Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What Do Box Tops for Education Really Promote?

I collect Box Tops for Education for my daughter's elementary school. One or two products that I buy are involved in the program and I dutifully clip the box tops for the school. I recently noticed a commercial for Pillsbury® Toaster Strudel® Pastries promoting their affiliation with the Box Tops for Education Program. It got me thinking: How healthy are the food products that are involved the program?

"Box Tops for Education is a program created by General Mills to provide funding for education." This is the description of the program on the eHOW website. The official Box Tops for Education website claims to have raised over $320 million for schools since 1996 (each box top collected is worth ten cents). Compare this with the annual cost of obesity which was recently stated as $147 billion per year, and the benefit of the Box Tops program pales in comparison! With increasing rates of overweight and obesity in kids, it's pretty important that programs designed for schools promote healthy eating habits.

I surveyed the food products involved with the program and created three categories: healthy, pseudo-healthy, and refined. I classified each food in a category for each division of food products (refrigerated, frozen, beverages, etc.). This is by no means a scientific study and my criteria for healthy vs. pseudo healthy foods is perhaps a bit blurred (I classified Juicy Juice as a pseudo-healthy food. Consumed in small amounts, it is fine, but even 100% juice can contribute to weight gain when over-consumed). If a food contained a majority of whole grains, was in its natural state, contained lower amounts of sodium, and had limited added sugars, I considered it a healthy food. Food products close to their natural state, but with some added sugars (or high natural sugar content) and added ingredients to bump up their dietary fiber were considered pseudo-healthy. Foods with a high amount of refined grains and sugars (including artificial sweeteners) and higher in sodium were classified as refined foods (notice how I didn't call them unhealthy, although it is implied).

As you can image, most of the food products promoted by the Box Tops for Education program are processed. You can view the participating products for yourself. The list changes often as new products are added and limited products are deleted. Of the one hundred and eighty-eight products that I looked at, 14.3% were healthy, 14.8% were pseudo-healthy, and 70.7% were refined. These results are not so impressive, especially when it comes to feeding our kids!

Ehow suggests using the program only for products that you normally buy. But we all know that this is not really how promotions and coupons are intended to be used by their creators. They want us to buy their products and the more we buy the better. It behooves manufacturers to offer promotions to encourage us to buy; if we think that they are socially minded in the process, all the better for them. I wish they would just donate money to the schools without pushing us to buy products, but that's not how America works.

Fortunately, there are non-food products that are involved in this program, so you don't have to worry about contributing to childhood obesity because you want to clip a few box tops. Even better is the online program. There are many participating stores selling many non-food products that will provide a multiple of box tops per every $10 spent.

I'll continue to clip the box tops for the three food products that I regularly purchase and resist the urge to buy more because I think that I'm helping my daughter's school by doing so.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for taking the time to look at the foods being promoted through Box Tops. The $50 million that is given to schools pales in comparison to the the billions spent on advertising. How can we create a viral social campaign that encourages people to call these companies and ask them to go generic for a day and give the advertising monies to education?

    As we observe the public workers protesting throughout the country in Wisconsin, Ohio, Minnesota, and citizens throughout the world demanding their rights- we can do the same in the name of education and as consumers.