In “The Food Activist Handbook,” author Ali Berlow presents a list of 84 actions average eaters can take to improve their community’s food system. The list begins with “Start small” and goes on to suggest activities like screening a film, inviting a fisherman to dinner and setting up a community seed bank.

Each action will unearth information about how a community can distance their local food system from commercial, overly processed foods. Some information will be buried, Berlow writes, while some will be hiding in plain sight.

My “in plain sight” information came in the form of this directive: “Say no to marketing junk food to kids at school.” Berlow prompts PTOs to dump the box top and soda can “rewards” programs that are proffered by processed food companies in the name of education.

My grandmother collected Campbell’s soup labels in the 1970s and rotated which grandchild got the accolades at school for chipping in toward a new jungle gym or set of encyclopedias.

I started clipping when my kids were in day care. I trimmed pink Box Tops for Education rectangles from packaged yogurt tubes, Betty Crocker brownie mix and Pillsbury Crescent rolls (pigs in blankets are my husband’s weakness) for 10 cents a pop.

General Mills started Box Tops for Education in 1996 in California as an alternative to couponing, inviting parents concerned about underfunded schools to purchase products with special proofs of purchase redeemable as cash for their child’s school. Twenty years on, General Mills’ targeted philanthropy campaign engages almost 70 percent of American households and benefits 70 percent of the country’s K-8 schools.

Three-quarters of the 125 products regularly flogged as part of this program are processed foods; the others are butter, plastic or paper.

The Box Tops website tells how local schools have set and are working to meet their fundraising goals for the 2015-16 school year. Here in my hometown of Brunswick, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School is at 59 percent of its $2,150 goal; the Coffin Elementary School is at 47 percent of its $1,000 goal; St. John’s Catholic School is at 21 percent of its $1,000 goal; Brunswick Junior High is at 12 percent of its $1,000 goal; and the Spurwink School is at 2 percent of its $1,000 goal.

If all hit their targets, allowing for the fact that 25 percent of Box Top products are paper or plastic, we’re still talking about 46,000 boxes of processed food to be consumed by Brunswick families over 10 months as part of this fundraiser.

In an era when we are trying to change school cafeterias to serve more whole foods, are committed to cultivating school gardens, and gym teachers and the first lady are telling our kids to get their butts in gear to fight obesity, why are these types of programs still part of our scheme to boost school budget shortcomings?

When I asked locals who spend many hours working on the fundraising committees of parent organizations at their children’s schools about this contradiction, most could recall other programs they rejected, mainly those that push sugary drinks.

Many noted that since the Box Tops list was so long and varied, they could still participate without pushing junky food on their offspring. Still more contended that they’ve never felt pressured to buy any product they didn’t already use because of the Box Top program.

Furthermore, since there is no real way for a PTO to stop parents from buying these products if they want them, why not collect the money to benefit the school?

Berlow doesn’t offer a solution for this processed-food-for-funding situation. And short of writing a check to fully fund the school budget for next year, I can’t think of one either. But her directive has given me – as well as other parents I spoke with – pause to think about one for the future.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer and tester, and cooking teacher in Brunswick. She writes about feeding her family Maine seafood at Contact her at [email protected]

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