Parents reflect on milk cartoon missing kids

You are probably familiar with seeing the faces of missing children on the sides of milk cartons, whether it be in person or from a film or show. However, nowadays you don’t find them on paper cartons anymore. How did something so iconic and infamous as missing children on milk cartons become a thing of the past?

The Missing Children Milk Carton Program, as it was officially known, first started in late 1984 to early 1985. However, the origins of the program started earlier in 1984, having been brainstormed and first ever put into practice in Iowa. 

“In our time, there was no internet,” parent Stacy Rosckes said. “There was radio. There was TV and newspaper. Everything was slow.”

Officially, the first-ever missing children to be placed onto the side of a milk carton were Johnny Gosch and Eugene Martin, who were declared missing on Sept. 5, 1982, and Aug. 12, 1984, respectively. The two of them would be printed onto the sides of Anderson Erickson Dairy cartons in Des Moines, starting in September of 1984. From Iowa, the printing of missing children onto the side of milk cartons would reach a national level after Etan Patz’s face was placed onto the sides of cartons in 1985, He went missing in Manhattan in 1979. The whole program would explode into popularity during the time, especially thanks to the “stranger danger” phenomenon that was prevalent in the 80s.

“I can honestly say that when this started coming out, everyone was almost like, ‘Oh, taboo,’ and didn’t want to talk about it,” Rosckes said, “I don’t remember anyone in my family ever talking about it. If they did, it was the adults whispering in the corner. They weren’t talking in front of you.”

Over time, though, the program would only conjure up controversy, infamy and obsoletion. As it would turn out, the cartons didn’t do much to help locate those who were missing. In fact, neither Gosch, Martin nor even Patz would be found as a result of the program. Along with this, young children grew up seeing the milk carton at the table for breakfast, lunch or dinner, seeing kids their age who had disappeared, and such it was believed that this was freighting children. 

“Think about somebody going missing—that sequence of events you just listed about reporting to the cops, getting a photo to the dairy, putting the photo on a milk carton and getting it to the store—well, what was the most recent photo of Johnny?” Stacy’s husband Ken said, “The picture is all over now, but he doesn’t look like that.”

In many cases, though, the children featured on cartons were not abductions as many would have been under the impression of, but in many cases were rather runaways or divorced parents who do not have custody of their child. 

“It takes two things. It takes speed and a wide net of coverage,” Ken said “The milk cartons gave you a wide net of coverage of things people see every day, but the speed didn’t do it.”

On top of that, companies were issued tax breaks for each child placed onto the milk cartons, and as such the good nature of the program seemed to fade as the companies were doing it for the money. 

“In New Prague, nobody went missing, so it’s kinda like I think there was a story in the news about ‘Hey everyone, missing persons are gonna start coming on milk cartons and it’s good so that we can make it known,’” Ken said, “So you’d look and go ‘Oh, there is a milk carton with a person’s face on it,’ but nobody talked about it. Everyone just assumed that it just happened in big cities or in California. As such, nobody thought, ‘Oh, that happens in our town.”


Nowadays, systems like AMBER Alert have had much more success finding potential abductions, partially thanks to its ability to provide real-time updates directly to cell phones. This has subsequently resulted in the obsoletion of the Missing Children Milk Carton Program. In the long run, the program had good intentions, but was never quite able to do it’s intended purpose as well we thought.

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