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.
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.”