Marketing’s Changemakers: why General Mills is asking teenagers for their solutions to world hunger

Welcome to Marketing’s Changemakers, a new series from The Drum that tells the stories of brands trying to change the world in ways both big and small. Here, chief communications officer of General Mills Mary Lynn Carver discusses the company’s Feeding Better Futures Scholars Program.

There are unfortunately no easy fixes to issues as complex as hunger relief and sustainable agriculture, but both are causes that benefit from actions large and small - whether they stem from individuals, local communities, or yes, even brands.

While General Mills is far from the only company using its clout and resources to tackle these issues, the Minneapolis-based food giant has taken significant steps in recent years to help alleviate hunger across the globe and support sustainable agriculture practices.

Since 2010, the maker of brands including Cheerios and Yoplait has enabled more than 201 million meals through global food donations. Through its partnership with nonprofit Partners in Food Solutions, the company has provided training and technical support to more than 900 small and growing food businesses in eight African countries since 2008.

Its efforts to support sustainable agriculture to date have also made an impact. In addition to providing smallholder farmers - small farms that rely mainly on family labor - with training and equipment, the company has actively supported water conservation, pollinator health and soil health efforts over the last few years. For instance, General Mills contributed $735,000 to the National Wheat Foundation last November to help the organization conduct soil health research on wheat farms and education outreach.

At the start of this year, General Mills announced its latest contribution to these pressing issues: the Feeding Better Futures Scholars Program. In partnership with social change nonprofit DoSomething.org, the company is asking young people ages 13 to 21 to submit a short video that explains a solution or program they have initiated that addresses hunger relief or sustainable agriculture.

“We’ve been very involved in these two areas for a really long time, and we thought that this was a good way to get some fresh thinking about two really big challenging societal issues,” says Carver. “We’ve found that there are a lot of good people working in this space, but we thought this was a great opportunity to bring more visibility to the issues and kind of enroll the next generation into issues that are certainly going to be impacting them.”

The grand prize winner will be awarded $50,000 to further develop their solution, as well as the opportunity to present their idea at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado. Additionally, four finalists will each be given $10,000 to help grow their programs. All five winners will have the chance to meet with industry experts and leaders for mentorship opportunities.

“A key part of this program is connecting these youths that have incredible ideas with experts that can actually help them grow their ideas,” says Carver. “Those experts are not necessarily sitting in General Mills - some of them are - but a lot of them are our NGO partners that we can connect these folks to. Being that catalyst for change and that conduit for connecting the dots is what we are very interested in doing. Money alone is not going to solve societal issues.”

Submissions for the contest close on March 5, at which point a panel of judges will begin reviewing the videos to choose the five finalists. Consumers will then be asked to vote for the grand prize winner, who will be revealed in June.

In the meantime, General Mills is getting the word out about the scholars program via its partnership with DoSomething.org, which is promoting the contest with a PSA video starring actress AnnaSophia Robb. General Mills has also connected with youth, environmental and hunger relief organizations to make young members aware of the program.

Carver says the inspiration for the Feeding Better Futures Scholars Program, which General Mills plans to implement as a multi-year initiative, stemmed from the many existing solution-oriented programs that students and young people have started in their own communities.

By providing these kinds of local efforts with not only financial support but also access to mentors and a national platform like the Aspen Ideas Festival, General Mills is hoping it can help remove some of the barriers that young people often face when trying to build something.

“We really believe in the ideas that youth have, and we want to help their ideas grow,” she says. “These are two really big areas that need attention, and we want to give attention to the kids who have great solutions to them.”

By targeting high school and college students, General Mills is also hoping to engage with younger generations by making them more aware of what the company stands for and values.

“General Mills is a 150-year-old company. To some people, that means old and stodgy. To others, that may mean stable. It can mean a lot of things,” Carver explains. “We don’t want to leave any question in people’s minds related to what General Mills is all about. A lot of people don’t realize how deeply involved we are in hunger relief and sustainability efforts. This is an opportunity for us to continue to talk about those things.”

Internally, General Mills has committed to making sure its own operations align with the work it does in these areas. For example, in 2013 the company made a commitment to 100% sustainably source its top 10 priority ingredients - things like palm oil, sugarcane and oats - by 2020. According to General Mills, it’s 69% of the way there.

Considering one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is to end hunger and promote sustainable agriculture, General Mills realizes that its status as one of the world’s largest food companies means it simply can’t ignore these dire issues.

“We serve the world by making food people love. We can’t continue to do that for the next 150 years if we don’t take care of the earth,” Carver says.

Read other installments of Marketing's Changemakers at the series section on The Drum website.

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