Popular school fundraiser loved and hated
From staff and wire reports
Jan. 28, 2018 at 4 a.m.
For 43 years, schoolchildren and their parents have clipped the labels from cookie bags and cracker boxes as part of a popular rewards program called Labels for Education.
Through this and similar programs — think Tyson's Project A+ or General Mills' Box Tops for Education — schools get cash and supplies in exchange for clipped labels from participating food items.
But these programs might have major downsides for students. Critics say they are designed to sell junk food to children too young to make good health decisions.
Just this month, as Labels for Education wound down — a result of declining participation, said its parent company, Campbell's — public health advocates cheered the end of the program widely beloved by teachers, schools and parents. The program included snack foods, such as cookies and crackers, that many health advocates say should be discouraged.
"It's just another form of junk-food marketing to kids," said Colin Schwartz, a senior nutrition policy associate at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, one of several groups that has celebrated the demise of Labels for Education. "We're glad to see Campbell's ending its program, and we're calling on other companies to take the same step."
Besides Campbell's, two other companies dominate school rewards: General Mills and, to a far lesser extent, Tyson. Each company awards schools a set amount of money — roughly 5 to 38 cents — for each product purchase code or label collected from participating products.
Those products carry a distinctive logo on the front of the box or bag. Schools publicize that logo to parents via conferences and meetings, as well as through materials sent home with their children.
Many schools also promote rewards programs directly to students, holding contests and constructing bulletin boards to encourage them to bring more labels in. Once the labels are collected, schools exchange them for cash or supplies, ranging from pencils and markers to playground equipment.
The average payout is modest — $750 per school per year, in the case of General Mills — but that can go a long way at some schools, program participants say.
But local educators and school volunteers say the Box Tops for Education program helps them raise money to spend on things they otherwise would not have.
Deanna Smith is PTO Box Tops for Education coordinator for Robert F. Hunt West Elementary in New Diana ISD. She praised the program.
"We use it for all kinds of things. We buy books for our teachers and bought our library (e-readers), and we have bought classical books for our library," Smith said. "Oh my gosh — if people knew about how much it helped. I tell them they were throwing away a dime every time they threw something away."
Smith said the PTO typically earns about $1,000 a year through the program, but this year received a check for $1,700. Each Box Top equals 10 cents for schools.
Prize incentives for students at New Diana's East and West elementary schools start out small, such as a cookie cake for the class that collects the most. If the campus collects 3,000 Box Tops, the PTO brings the Gamesters' Paradise party bus to the school.
Critics don't object to schools getting much-needed funds. But they do protest the nutritional quality of the foods in rewards programs and schools' role in promoting them.
Campbell's, which also owns brands such as SpaghettiOs and Pepperidge Farm, has slapped the Labels for Education logo on frozen desserts and queso dip. Tyson's Project A+ includes salty chicken nuggets.
When it comes to Box Tops, by far the most popular of the programs, a recent study by researchers at Harvard University's Chan School of Public Health and MassGeneral Hospital for Children found two-thirds of the products bearing the Box Tops label do not meet federal nutrition requirements for sale in schools.
"The vast majority of these products can't be sold in schools, so they shouldn't be advertised in schools," Schwartz said.
Smith, at the New Diana campus, understands that health advocates would say the foods aren't the healthiest because "it's processed food." Still, it's what people buy.
"I don't think it's all bad for kids," Smith said. "Take the Fruit Roll-Ups. I buy them for my children and put them in their lunches. It has real fruit in it. If I don't like the product, I don't buy it."
Food companies point out that their rewards labels appear on healthier foods, too, such as vegetable soups and juices, in the case of Campbell's, or yogurt and Cheerios, in the case of General Mills.
At Hudson PEP Elementary School in Longview, Box Tops chairwoman Jenny Hubbard said the program has helped purchase playground equipment and Chromebooks and paid to bring authors to the school. The campus generally earns $1,100 to $1,500 a year through Box Tops.
Hubbard said she does not agree with health advocates who are challenging the nutrition in Box Tops products.
"I don't think the foods are terrible, and there are Box Top organic options like Annie's brand out there," she said. "And not all the Box Tops are on food. They also have plastic wraps and even copy paper."
Food companies argue that, even if the labels sometimes appear on unhealthy foods, the program is designed to appeal to the parents making shopping decisions, not their school-age children. All three companies have strict policies on marketing to kids.
"The (Labels for Education) program's marketing is directed to adult coordinators and parents, not to kids," Campbell's said in a statement.
"Box Tops for Education is NOT a brand marketing program," General Mills spokeswoman Mollie Wulff said in an email. "It is a fundraising program for parents and a way for General Mills to support local communities and schools."
But for critics, this is another point of contention: Children are often highly involved in rewards programs, they say, and schools often advertise the programs directly to them.
That type of in-school promotion can cause children to develop positive associations with the labels and the products they appear on, said Jennifer Harris, a researcher at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut. Those associations can be difficult to overwrite once they are established.
"There's a reason companies want to get kids when they're really young," Harris said. "When aimed at children, whose minds are still developing, marketing can create lifelong preferences and habits that contribute to obesity and other conditions."
'No good solutions'
Many public health advocates would like to see schools withdraw from these programs entirely. But that is unlikely, said Faith Boninger, a researcher at the University of Colorado's National Education Policy Center, because many schools have grown accustomed to the payouts to supplement decreased public funds. With the exception of Campbell's Labels for Education, rewards programs remain highly popular.
"There are no good solutions for schools," said Boninger, who opposes the programs. "Schools don't have the money they need, which is why they resort to these food company handouts."
At Ore City Elementary School, secretary Melissa Strutton coordinates the label programs. She said she had not thought about the foods being unhealthy, but echoed other school representatives — not all the products with the Box Tops are bad.
"I guess that the kids probably don't need to be eating everything the Box Tops are on, but I think that is part of society's issue because of what we eat," she said. "The processed foods are the cheapest thing to eat, but the Box Tops are not only on food, they are on Ziploc bags, tissues, paper products."