Let them eat ‘cereal for dinner’ is just another example of America’s hatred of poor people

OPINION: Kellogg's CEO Gary Pilnick's tone-deaf suggestion that cash-strapped families eat cereal for dinner is just the latest example of how America treats families struggling with food insecurity.

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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

They’ll tell poor, low-income and working people to eat cereal for dinner, and Black people are paying the heaviest price.

In a perfect example of failing to read the room — or even worse, lacking empathy — Gary Pilnick, the CEO of the cereal company Kellogg’s, gave some advice to cash-strapped families struggling to make it and put food on the table: Put down the chicken, and eat some Frosted Flakes for dinner.    

“The cereal category has always been quite affordable, and it tends to be a great destination when consumers are under pressure,” Pilnick said. “If you think about the cost of cereal for a family versus what they might otherwise do, that’s going to be much more affordable.” Kellogg’s has an ad campaign, “Give chicken the night off,” which encourages people to go for cheaper options such as Corn Flakes, Froot Loops and Raisin Bran.”

The company has invited customers to share their cereal-for-dinner experiences on Instagram for a chance to win $5,000 and a year’s supply of Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes or Frosted Mini-Wheats. 

This push for eating cereal outside of breakfast reflects the changing realities in the breakfast market. Despite an uptick during the pandemic, cereal sales are on the decline — after a century of being on top of the breakfast market through successful marketing, advertising and package design. Some people are opting for protein rather than sugar and carbs for breakfast, and are shifting to more convenient options like breakfast sandwiches, protein shakes and granola bars. Past studies have also shown that because of television marketing to children, Black people with kids are more likely to buy sugary, non-nutritious cereal options.

But the move by Kellogg’s tells us even more when Pilnick should have said less. Pilnick, whose base salary is $1 million with a total compensation of $4 million, is showing his disdain for the poor. And we can assume that cereal is not the dinner of choice for cereal company CEOs.

Regular people are spending 26% more on food since 2020 and a bigger share of their encome in decades — 11% of their income in 2022, the highest rate since 1991.

What’s worse is that, according to a recent report, corporate greed and profit-making helped drive the rise in inflation. Food and energy companies have hiked their prices to boost their profit margins and passed it all off to the consumers.

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And consumers are experiencing increased food insecurity, with Black people bearing the brunt. According to the USDA, there were 44 million food-insecure Americans in 2022, which are people who don’t have enough money to eat. This number has increased, and Black people and other people of color experience higher rates of food insecurity than white people.

A Centers for Disease Control study found that while 6% of adults had food-insecure families in 2021, the details land differently based on race. Although 4% of white adults and 3.7% of Asian-American adults were in food-insecure families, this was the case for 12.2% of Black adults and 8% of Latinx adults. Not surprisingly, poor access to food translates into negative health outcomes.

These numbers are especially relevant when we consider the efforts by Republican-controlled states to cut funding for hunger programs. Such punitive efforts to starve people by restricting their access to programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or food stamps — and limiting what foods they can purchase — reflect a hatred of government helping marginalized people and stereotypes based on race and class.

When Ronald Reagan stigmatized low-income people, particularly people of color with the “welfare queen” trope, he fed a racialized image of low-income people exploiting the system, essentially getting over by taking advantage of wasteful government programs. To this day, poor Americans have not recovered from being stigmatized by Reagan’s stereotype of a Black woman in Chicago with an income of $150,000 obtained through welfare and government benefits.

Conservative white politicians take advantage of myths of welfare recipients buying lobster, filet mignon and crab legs, and seek to humiliate and scapegoat poor people by accusing them of buying expensive luxury food items with government money. Never mind that organic and healthful food alternatives are more expensive than junk foods.

Meanwhile, telling people to eat cereal for dinner ignores the fact that some Black people have been doing this forever — not necessarily because they want to eat it, but because they have to. This is all they can afford to eat. And this is something they don’t necessarily want you to know. So, as the rich cereal executive would say, let them eat cereal.

David A. Love, theGrio.com

David A. Love is a journalist and commentator who writes investigative stories and op-eds on a variety of issues, including politics, social justice, human rights, race, criminal justice and inequality. Love is also an instructor at the Rutgers School of Communication and Information, where he trains students in a social justice journalism lab. In addition to his journalism career, Love has worked as an advocate and leader in the nonprofit sector, served as a legislative aide, and as a law clerk to two federal judges. He holds a B.A. in East Asian Studies from Harvard University and a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He also completed the Joint Programme in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford. His portfolio website is davidalove.com.

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