- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 10, 2000

Can Sunrise Cereal save the Earth? If so, what will it cost?

Only $100,000, says General Mills, whose new, high-profile cornmeal-based cereal is allied with President Clinton's AmeriCorps paid volunteer program.

Sunrise Cereal plans to donate one dollar, up to a maximum of $100,000, to AmeriCorps' organic farming and National Park Service programs for every person who punches in a box top code on Sunrise's Web site at www.sunrisecereal.com.

"Now millions of Americans will receive the call to service from the breakfast table," the president said June 27, referring to the photos of three AmeriCorps volunteers on Sunrise Cereal boxes. These volunteers are "getting things done," the back blurb says, by teaching organic gardening in Austin, Texas, restoring habitats at Yellowstone National Park and rehabilitating the Appalachian Trail.

And you can, too, just by going to that Web site.

Both AmeriCorps and General Mills are targeting the Sunrise Cereal "psychographic:" a set of consumers grouped by ideology, instead of age, race, gender or class. They are people who buy products because of the ideas behind the breakfast cereal. The Sunrise psychographic as well as the people who drive the booming American organic foods market for are highly educated, affluent, altruistic and environmentally sensitive.

It seemed a no-brainer to connect that market with that of Americorps, Mr. Clinton's domestic version of the Peace Corps. Now a $477 million federal program with more than 40,000 volunteers, it is overseen and funded by the Corporation for National Service (CNS).

AmeriCorps volunteers are 64 percent female and 80 percent white, almost all of whom have a high school diploma and are working toward college. The typical volunteer is between 18 and 24.

"Sunrise Organics shares a lot of the values AmeriCorps shares we wanted to do good things for the Earth," says General Mills spokesman Tom Johnson.

"Organic food isn't just a product, it's a lifestyle," he says. "It's a product that demands that you be actively involved. We wanted to help people be actively concerned with their communities."

And, hopefully, do that through AmeriCorps.

"AmeriCorps will be recruiting 50,000 young people to serve next year and what General Mills is doing for us is putting out advertising at no cost to the taxpayer," says CNS spokesman Sandy Scott.

The arrangement is a sweet deal for General Mills: Having spent $15 million to promote Sunrise in 1999, contributing a mere $100,000 for presidential sponsorship is nothing. For AmeriCorps, having Sunrise Cereal funnel young, granola-eating, health-conscious, environmentally responsible college students into their programs only increases their visibility and support.

But AmeriCorps can be a expensive confection. Independent auditors, including the General Accounting Office (GAO), estimate Mr. Clinton's pet project requires $23,500 a year in operating costs, stipends and grants to field the average AmeriCorps volunteer.

CNS says the actual cost per volunteer is $15,000, once donations are factored in. Still, private sector donors contribute only 10 percent of AmeriCorps' operating budget. The bulk of the operating costs for training, deployment and support come from taxpayer dollars.

Congressional funding for the program has grown steadily since its inception in 1995, as AmeriCorps gained volunteers. Mr. Clinton's vision for AmeriCorps is 100,000 volunteers and a budget of at least $533 million by 2004. The estimated cost of AmeriCorps volunteers' labor is $12 per hour for entry level tasks. Twenty-eight percent of its volunteers do not complete their terms of service.

General Mills' $100,000 grant to AmeriCorps programs may seem like a lot but would support only a handful of volunteers in the field.

In last month's "The American Spectator," John Bovard wrote that AmeriCorps achievements are less than thought. He cited a former National Conservation Corps member, who wrote in his resignation letter: "There are no new projects. Teams are sent to the same state parks over and over again. Teams are told they are doing work that really doesn't need to be done."

General Mills defended AmeriCorps' reputation and use of funds. "AmeriCorps volunteers do work that regular volunteers couldn't do," says Mr. Johnson of General Mills. "AmeriCorps is a very respected program: George Bush supports it, President Clinton supports it, Nancy Reagan supports it… . You really have to dig to find people who are critical of AmeriCorps. We wanted to support that."

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