Wednesday, September 20, 2006

School breakfast opens new possibilities -- for both health and marketing

Tom Philpott at Grist this month asks some tough questions about nutritional quality in new public/private/nonprofit partnerships to promote and market school breakfast programs. He comments on Berkeley school chef Ann Cooper and recent articles about school meals in the Wall Street Journal (behind pay wall) and New Yorker (link can't be found).
The calculation goes like this: 29 million U.S. children eat federally subsidized lunch every day, while only 9 million eat breakfast. "Those 20 million unserved breakfasts translate into nearly $2 billion in federal money that could be claimed from school-feeding programs, but has been left on the table each year," the Journal reports.

To capture that $2 billion, corporate marketing departments are cooking up some predictable schemes. Here is the Journal again: "Earlier this month, Kellogg Co. began selling its own breakfast-in-a-box to schools, which includes cereal, a Pop-Tart or graham crackers, and juice. Tyson Foods Inc. is adapting its popular lunchtime chicken nuggets and patties into smaller sizes for breakfast. Scores of other companies also are pitching breakfast items to schools."

One entrepreneur, Gary Davis, may have the giants beat. Davis' company, East Side Entrees, "was already a player in the school-lunch program, supplying products like SpongeBob SquarePants milk and Batman cheese pizza," the Journal reports. Now, East Side Entrees hopes to bring in $100 million in the 2006-2007 school year alone selling "Breakfast Breaks" -- ready-made boxes of processed juice, crackers, and cereal, made by the likes of General Mills -- to school districts nationwide. To do so, Davis (described by the Journal as a "former food broker") has lined up a formidable phalanx of anti-hunger NGOs, lobbyists, and industry groups to promote his product.

At a press conference promoting his "Got breakfast?" marketing push last winter, Davis flexed his might. Share Our Strength and the Alliance to End Hunger, a pair of well-heeled D.C.-based nonprofits to which Davis has pledged a cut of his breakfast take, showed up in support. Farm-state worthies Bob Dole and George McGovern offered platitudes about breakfast's status as the day's most important meal. The California Milk Processor Board blessed Davis' twisting of the iconic "Got milk?" slogan to his own use. The USDA, which oversees the federal school-lunch and -breakfast programs, sent Kate Coler, deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, to applaud the effort. Before swinging through the USDA's revolving door, Coler served as chief lobbyist for the Food Marketing Institute (a trade group for supermarket chains) and as legislative liaison for the American Bankers Association in its dealings with USDA officials and congressional agricultural committee members.