The Rise and Fall of the Missing Children Milk Carton Campaign

Before there were AMBER Alerts and GPS tracking, milk cartons were a popular way to create awareness of child abductions.

Liz Jin
The Collector
Published in
5 min readDec 18, 2020

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Examples of milk cartons featuring missing children; Photo source.

One of my favorite books growing up was The Face on the Milk Carton, a young adult novel written by Caroline B. Cooney. The book is about a 15-year-old girl named Janie Johnson, who lives with her loving parents. One day Janie is startled to see her face on a milk carton under the heading “Missing Child.” The milk carton claimed that Jennie Spring was kidnapped from a New Jersey shopping mall at age 3. The rest of the book explores Janie’s journey to find the truth as she begins having flashbacks of people and places that suggest her past isn’t what she thought.

To my surprise, I didn’t realize that this book was eerily similar to a real-life case. In the 1980s, 7-year-old Bonnie Lohman saw her face on a milk carton and set off a chain of events that would lead her to be reunited with her father.

The Milk Carton Campaign

In the late 1970s and 1980s, several high-profile missing child cases dominated the news, prompting the founding of The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 1984. The most famous of these cases included the disappearance of Etan Patz and the murder of Adam Walsh, son of “America’s Most Wanted” host John Walsh.

Etan Patz, who was abducted in 1979, was one of the first children featured on a milk carton; Photo source.

At the time, there was no uniform system of raising awareness for missing children. In September 1984, Anderson & Erickson Dairy printed on their milk cartons the images of two local paperboys who had been kidnapped.

The nonprofit National Child Safety Council latched onto this idea and soon created a nationwide program called the Missing Children Milk Carton Program. By March 1985, almost half of America’s independent dairies had adopted similar milk carton initiatives.

Criticism of the Campaign

On its face, the milk carton campaign seemed like a brilliant idea. After all, nearly every family bought milk. Thus, it followed that milk…

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Liz Jin
The Collector

“I wake up in the morning with a desire to both save the world and savor the world. That makes it hard to plan my day.”