For the past two years, the government picked up the tab for many students’ meals regardless of their household income at schools with qualified waivers as part of a broader effort to address the sharp uptick in food insecurity at the beginning of the pandemic. As many schools reopen, some legislators argued these waivers are no longer necessary and ended the program.
However, the withdrawal of universal free meals comes while food inflation is at 40-year highs and many Americans beginning to feel the pinch are adjusting their shopping habits – buying less expensive and fewer foods and beverages.
Against this backdrop, a new survey commissioned by General Mills Big G Cereals found 65% of parents report they are concerned about their ability to provide a "healthy" breakfast due to inflation and rising grocery costs, and 52% say they believe only families with higher incomes can afford nutritious options for their families and are uncertain about how to introduce more nutrients into their children’s diets.
In addition, the survey of 1,000 parents with children 12 years and under conducted by The Harris Poll, found 75% of parents worry that their child is not consuming the nutrients they need and many don’t know where to find those nutrients.
This combination of concern and confusion is “like a one-two punch of stress and worry for these parents during arguably what some would call a more stressful time of the year for parents, which is the back-to-school timeframe,” Amy Cohn, registered dietitian and senior nutrition manager at General Mills, told FoodNavigator-USA.
To help caregivers navigate breakfast before school when time and funds may be tight, General Mills launched a social media campaign with a “danceable, sing-along … new ‘Ce[Real] Deal’” song with registered dietitians that explains how cereals, including iconic brands from General Mills like Chex, Trix and Cheerios, are fortified with vitamins and minerals that kids need. The jingle touts the health benefits of key nutrients found in the cereals and positions the products as convenient and affordable.
“Parents are confused [about nutrition], and so we are launching this campaign to really myth-bust and celebrate the power of the cereal bowl,” Cohn said. “I think often nutrition is viewed as serious and problematic and difficult, and we just believe it’s not. It’s easy. It’s fun. It’s affordable. And yes, nutrition is delicious.
“The Ce[Real] Deal campaign showcases to parents and families that the answers to these problems is right in your pantry. A bowl of cereal provides all these vitamins and minerals at an accessible price point.”
Campaign seeks to 'bust myths' about nutritional value, price of cereal
While General Mills leverages the trust of five registered dietitians in the campaign, the company acknowledges it is fighting an uphill battle to convince some caregivers of cereals’ benefits.
According to General Mills’ survey, 50% of parents whose child eats cereal say they don’t feel they are providing the most nutritious option for breakfast with cereal.
In addition, the price of ready-to-eat cereal purchased online has been one of the hardest hit by inflation, with Euromonitor research finding the median price of cereal rose from about $6 in January 2021 to $7.56 in February 2022 – a hard-hitting 22.3% price increase.
Nutritional value and price are two of the ‘stickiest myths’ that Cohn said General Mills wants to address head on its Ce[Real] Deal campaign.
“The number one cereal myth would be that cereal is empty calories and just full of sugar and no good nutrition,” said Cohn. But she countered by pointing to results from the NHANES 2017-2018 data for children 2 years and older shows that cereal eaters take in more calcium, vitamin D and fiber than non-cereal eaters.
As for price, she said a serving of cereal with milk still comes in under 50 cents.
“While inflation is real, obviously, and being across many different categories, including cereal … we are really striving to keep our costs as low as possible for consumers. I can’t tell you there isn’t a minute in my work day that goes by where we are not striving toward that, and I am super proud to say because of our commitment to that, on average of all the General Mills Big G cereal, from Honey Nut Cheerios to Lucky Charms to Rice Chex, and all of the others in between, with milk, still remains about 50 cents per serving,” she said.
General Mills also works closely with the US Department of Agriculture’s food and nutrition regulated program, including the school breakfast program, to help ensure school children have access to nutritious options, as well as other food services to help address food insecurity and close the nutrition gap, Cohn said.
“We’ve been doing that for years and have a great relationship with USDA and the school feeding programs,” she said.
Orgain teams with FoodCorps to support children’s nutrition
General Mills is not the only industry player stepping up to ease caregivers’ concerns about their children’s nutrition and students return to schools this year – meal replacement shake and snack bar maker Orgain also is striving to “advance equity in school nutrition” this fall.
The California-based “clean nutrition” company is partnering with FoodCorps to launch Food for Thought – a back-to-school program to connect children with school meals and support food education.
For every Orgain item, including its organic kids’ nutrition shake and plant-based protein powder, purchased through Instacart in September, Orgain will make a donation, up to $250,000, to support FoodCorps’ mission, which is to nourish children’s health, education and a sense of belonging by advancing equity and food education in school nutrition and in policy and advocacy.