'Sesame Street' characters join Michelle Obama's healthy food campaign

Michelle Obama announces that the Sesame Workshop will let the produce industry use Elmo, Big Bird, and other furry 'Sesame Street' characters free of charge to market fruits and veggies to kids.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Sesame Street characters Elmo (l.) and Rosita snuggle with first lady Michelle Obama as they help promote fresh fruit and vegetable consumption to kids in an event in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Oct. 30, 2013.

A trip down the grocery store produce aisle could soon feel like a stroll down "Sesame Street."

Michelle Obama announced Wednesday that the nonprofit organization behind the popular children's educational TV program will let the produce industry use Elmo, Big Bird, and Sesame Street's other furry characters free of charge to market fruits and veggies to kids.

The goal is to get children who often turn up their noses at the sight of produce to eat more of it.

Under the arrangement, Sesame Workshop is waiving the licensing fee for its Muppet characters for two years.

As soon as next spring, shoppers and children accompanying them can expect to see their favorite Sesame Street characters on stand-alone signs and on stickers and labels on all types of produce regardless of whether it comes in a bag, a carton, or just its skin.

An "unprecedented step," Mrs. Obama said of the agreement. "And they're doing this free of charge. Yes!" she said as she pumped her fists in the air before an audience seated in the State Dining Room of the White House.

The first lady cited a study published last fall in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine in which Cornell University researchers gave more than 200 boys and girls ages 8 to 11 the choice of eating an apple, a cookie, or both. Most kids went for the cookie. Asked to choose again after researchers put Elmo stickers on the apples, nearly double the number of kids chose the fruit, she said.

"Just imagine what will happen when we take our kids to the grocery store, and they see Elmo and Rosita and the other Sesame Street Muppets they love up and down the produce aisle," Mrs. Obama said. "Imagine what it will be like to have our kids begging us to buy them fruits and vegetables instead of cookies, candy, and chips."

The agreement between Sesame Workshop and the Produce Marketing Association is the latest step by the private sector to support "Let's Move," the first lady's nearly 4-year-old campaign to reduce childhood obesity rates in the US.

It also is the first announcement since a summit on food marketing to children that Mrs. Obama convened at the White House last month, where she urged a broad range of companies to do more, faster, to promote foods with less salt, fat, and sugar to youngsters.

Sesame Street characters Elmo and Rosita, who also speaks Spanish, joined her for the announcement.

Afterward, Mrs. Obama joined the Muppets at her garden on the South Lawn for the annual fall harvest. White House staff helped students from elementary schools in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia with the harvest. The group, including the first lady, also prepared – and ate – turkey veggie wraps made using some of the freshly picked cucumbers and tomatoes.

Sam Kass, the "Let's Move" executive director, said it was a big step for Sesame Workshop to waive its licensing fee, which is a major source of income for the nonprofit.

"For them to step in and do this is a really big thing," said Kass, who also is an assistant White House chef.

Sherrie Westin, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Sesame Workshop, said waiving the fee is not normal practice and that it's too early to say how much revenue would be lost. But she said the deal gives the company another way to use the characters to pitch to children and families the healthier-eating messages that are part of its TV show.

"It would be a shame not to use them to that end," she said of the Muppets.

Larry Soler, president and chief executive of the Partnership for a Healthier America, said kids younger than 5 don't eat enough fruits and vegetables, and that it gets worse as children grow up.

He said the agreement hopefully will "drive excitement" and interest in eating fruits and vegetables that might not otherwise exist. The partnership is a nonprofit organization that supports the first lady's campaign.

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