In 1984, supermarket shoppers in Des Moines, Iowa, found something truly shocking in the dairy aisle — milk cartons printed with the faces of two missing boys.
Before long, the faces of missing children were appearing on milk cartons across the US as part of a program developed by the US National Child Safety Council to generate public awareness and track down missing kids.
By March 1985, 700 of 1600 independent dairies in the United States had adopted the practice of publishing photos of missing children on milk cartons. Prior to the establishment of this program there had been no way of tracking missing children across state lines.
Etan Patz was one of the first missing children, and perhaps the most famous of them, to be sought with this strategy. In 1979, when the six-year-old boy went missing on the way to the schoolbus in Manhattan, there had been no system in the United States for tracking missing children nationwide. In 1985, Patz’s photo was printed on milk cartons so that consumers purchasing milk at retail markets could be encouraged to look for the missing child.
One success was the case of seven-year-old Bonnie Lohman, whose mother and stepfather had taken her away from her father when she was three. At the age of seven, Bonnie was with her stepfather at the grocery store when she discovered her own face on the side of one milk carton. She recognized the picture of herself but didn’t understand what it meant. She asked to keep the image from the milk carton and was allowed on the provision she kept it a secret. Bonnie’s neighbors discovered her identity when the carton was accidentally left with a bag of toys at their house. They notified the authorities and Bonnie was reunited with her father.
The Milk Carton Kids Program became obsolete in the 1990s with the introduction of the Amber Alert System, a child abduction alert system distributed by media channels and via SMS still used in the US today. The milk carton program arguably pioneered the way in creating public awareness about the cases of missing children.