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The Dark Side of Box Tops for Education

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 4/7/2021 Lora Kelley

Updated at 4:35 p.m. ET on April 8, 2021.

For many young adults and their parents, the words box tops evoke fond memories of cutting out cardboard rectangles and stuffing them into Ziploc bags to carry to school. The Box Tops for Education program, founded in 1996, is a General Mills initiative that allows families to redeem labels from eligible food and household products for 10-cent contributions to their schools. Over the past 25 years, the program has given nearly $1 billion to schools nationwide. But the clippings are rapidly becoming symbols of a bygone era, as General Mills announced in 2019 that it would be retiring physical Box Tops in favor of an app.

Many think of the program as a feel-good way for a company to help families support their schools. But the economics of Box Tops has always involved trade-offs. To earn a 10-cent donation, families would need to buy, say, a $4 box of name-brand cereal, such as Lucky Charms. In exchange for offering the coupons, General Mills gained invaluable access to an impressionable audience: kids. For more than 20 years, many families and schools were happy to exchange a bit of cardboard for a bit of extra cash, and the program was very successful. (Box Tops is by far the most popular of its peer programs, and similar initiatives have gone away in recent years: In 2018, Labels for Education, run by the Campbell’s company, wound down after more than 40 years in operation.)

Then, in the summer of 2019, General Mills announced in a press release that the program was “saying goodbye to old-school clipping and going digital.” The rollout of the app over the past year and a half has been rocky. Within a couple of weeks of the launch, parents on Facebook were expressing concerns about privacy. In October 2019, just three months after the app was introduced, an ABC affiliate in Sacramento reported that users were frustrated with it, and warned that “if the company fails to fix problems with the app, public schools could be in for a rough year in terms of funding.” Then, nine months into the app’s launch, the pandemic disrupted the school year and shifted consumer priorities.

Lilly Moeding, a brand-experience manager for Box Tops for Education, told me that school earnings from the program went down by a third in 2020. (In 2018, The Washington Post reported that the average payout per school per year was $750.) During the pre-pandemic months when the app was in use, earnings were down from the previous year, but another spokesperson noted that was to be expected, as “we were focused on building awareness and participation with the digital program in the first few months.” It’s hard to say for sure whether the app’s struggles are a result of the pandemic, users’ frustrations, natural growing pains in the transition from physical to digital, or some combination thereof, but Box Tops appears to be in a moment of turmoil.

Without the nostalgia of the cardboard cutouts softening the transactional nature of the program, its contradictions have become more visible. The program’s changes, as well as parents’ unease with the app’s data-collection practices, have prompted people to question whom the program really serves, and reassess how far they will go for a dime-size donation to schools.

[Read: The inequality at the heart of America’s education system]

In the Box Tops app, users must scan their receipts within 14 days of purchasing any eligible products. Physical clippings are being phased out of production, though families can still bring in any unexpired ones they find on old packaging. “No longer do parents, teachers, and other community members have to cut out and then physically drop off dozens, or even hundreds, of Box Tops clips at their local school,” Moeding said.

But for many families and teachers, the inefficient ritual was the point: a way to involve kids in a project and participate in a community. Annie Schiffmann, a digital-marketing professional and the mother of two elementary-school-age daughters in Summit, New Jersey, told me she is bummed that her kids, who do not have phones, can no longer meaningfully participate in the program by clipping and sorting labels.* The transition to the app “took away the experience for my daughters,” she said. “I think what’s lost is the kids being able to have that ownership.” Schiffmann found the app frustrating to use, and she told her mother, who used to save Box Tops in a jar for her granddaughters, “Don’t even bother anymore.”

People may not want to use the app, because they find it confusing or worry about privacy. In the early days of the launch, parents expressed concerns that with access to their receipts, Box Tops could track their spending habits. Moeding effectively confirmed their fears, saying, “We use the data to make the program stronger. For example, if we see that Box Tops participants purchase a lot of almond milk, we may use that data to try to attract an almond-milk brand to participate in the program.” (Savvy users can black out other purchases on their receipts with marker, if they want.) Further, the Box Tops privacy policy warns that it may collect user information from multiple sources, including linked social-media profiles, for purposes such as improving advertising. Data collection is lucrative, and for General Mills, a corporation with an operating profit of nearly $3 billion in 2020, 10 cents is a small price to pay for such insights.

Jordan Caldwell, a fifth-grade teacher in Marietta, Ohio, has been the Box Tops coordinator at her school for five years. She told me that, in the first three years that she ran the program, she saw promising growth. But when the app was introduced, participants including grandparents and workers at local businesses were slow to catch on. “We are only at $60 for the year. In a typical year, we would be raising, like, $500 to $600,” Caldwell said. Data about her school on the Box Tops website confirm that while its overall earnings from the program exceed $15,000, it had raised just $66.20 this school year as of earlier this month—though that may also be due to the pandemic’s disruptions. Caldwell’s school raised a more typical $427.20 during the 2019–20 academic year. She said the pandemic has caused many families in her community to tighten their grocery budgets and eliminate more expensive brand-name items. Caldwell used to collect Ziploc bags (which are themselves eligible Box Tops products) bursting with clippings from classrooms each month, she said, and she enjoyed sorting the Box Tops with her fifth graders as a community-service activity. But she estimated that just a small group of people now scan receipts in a month.

[Read: The power of a wealthy PTA]

Caldwell’s school is closing at the end of the academic year, but, she said, “had we been staying open, I don’t think we’d be able to do what we would do in a typical year.” That usually included using Box Tops funds each spring to fix basketball nets, repaint the four-square court, and “buy new four-square balls, because by that point in the year, most of them are on the roof.”

Box Tops has enjoyed enduring popularity in part because the pull to help kids is powerful. Buying products with Box Tops can give parents what Samuel E. Abrams, the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, calls a “good-citizen effect, which in turn has a mollifying impact on the purchase.” Customers get to feel doubly good—they are buying something they want and supporting schools in the process. Abrams told me that this instinct is a very American one, as “our social contract depends on volunteerism as a central means of supporting core civic institutions.”

Josh Golin, the executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, credits the loyalty that many have had to Box Tops to “the fact that it’s just been around for a long time and it makes people feel good, rather than that it’s actually a good deal for schools.” He added that there’s a strong “nostalgia factor”: If people didn’t already have the “warm fuzzies” about the program, they would likely be less willing to share their receipts with a corporation in exchange for a tiny donation to schools. Those feelings can cause even discerning families to stick with the program in spite of its limitations.  

For instance, a program that depends on families spending money on brand-name products was always going to leave people out. Some worry that the app, which requires a smartphone to use, will only reinforce the divide. Mindy Nickels, a fifth-grade teacher in Lawrence, Kansas, raised concerns that families who get meals from food pantries or through other public assistance would no longer be able to participate in the program once physical clippings are completely phased out. They would not receive proof of purchase for any General Mills products they received, making it impossible for them to scan receipts. Moeding confirmed that “a food-pantry item would not be able to participate in the receipt-scanning program.”

Alex Molnar, a professor and co-director of the Commercialism in Education Research Unit at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told me that the program “normalizes inequality.” In his view, Box Tops reinforces the idea that schoolchildren should be responsible for funding their own education, in this case by asking their parents to buy things, an arrangement he calls “tawdry.” Molnar said he doesn’t see the program as philanthropic, because General Mills is “gaining a ton of absolutely free publicity. So they’re getting; they’re not giving.” The corporation has previously denied that Box Tops is a brand-marketing program. But it doesn’t claim it’s a charitable program either. “While giving back to communities and schools may be considered a philanthropy to some, Box Tops for Education payments to schools are treated as a corporate business expense,” a spokesperson told me. Classifying this giving as a business expense reduces General Mills’s tax liability, she said, because it lowers the gross profit on which the company pays taxes.

Experts have also raised concerns about the nutritional value of Box Tops products: A 2017 study from Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health found that less than a third of Box Tops–eligible food and drinks meet federal Smart Snacks in School standards, which regulate the foods that can be sold or advertised in schools.

A paradox of Box Tops is that wealthier schools, which tend to have less need for extra funds, are more likely than lower-income schools to have parents available to lead volunteer efforts and rally other parents to buy General Mills products. Box Tops shared with me a list of the 10 zip codes with the highest earnings from the program in the 2019–20 school year. The households in these zip codes had an average income of more than $100,000, according to analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey data. Parents at lower-income schools, which could really use the extra funding, may not be in a position to buy General Mills products (though they still may feel pressure to do so to help the schools).

Nickels is acutely aware of the funding challenges teachers face. She has frequently paid for supplies for her classroom out of her own pocket over the years. Her school, which has raised about $25,000 overall through Box Tops, had raised just $118 this academic year as of late March, much less than usual. Nickels said that “any money cut concerns me, no matter what.” But at the same time, she imagines that a world without a corporate presence in schools could be a more equitable one. “I think if Box Tops were lost,” she said, “maybe it would give everyone pause to say, ‘Hey, we need educated people; we need to fund our schools; it is not fair to rely on students and their parents and the community to scan their receipts to fund schools.’ Maybe we can sit down and figure out a way to solve this problem.”

* A previous version of this article misspelled Annie Schiffmann’s last name.


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