Work Off Those Cheetos!

PepsiCo Inc. paid for the playground equipment at the CentroNia preschool in Columbia Heights. The company is promoting exercise.
PepsiCo Inc. paid for the playground equipment at the CentroNia preschool in Columbia Heights. The company is promoting exercise. (Photos By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)

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By Caroline E. Mayer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Four-year-old Ylan Isaac earnestly dumps mulch into a big plastic funnel, then pours it out. He dumps and pours, dumps and pours, making it clear that this is his favorite spot in the new playground at his preschool. With good reason, he says: "You get to play with dirt."

Playing is exactly what PepsiCo Inc. had in mind when it decided to fund the playground at the CentroNia preschool in Columbia Heights, the first of 13 that the beverage and snack-food company will build around the country as part of its campaign to promote exercise. Like other big food companies, PepsiCo is trying to put the spotlight on fitness and nutrition to "balance" the calories consumed while eating many of the foods it sells.

"It's all about moving more, helping kids move more," Brock Leach, PepsiCo's chief innovation officer, said this month at the playground's ribbon-cutting.

Snack-food companies are under attack for childhood obesity. With the number of obese children more than doubling over the past 30 years, health care professionals and consumer activists have called for more government oversight of food advertising.

To address their critics, many food companies have introduced more healthful products, such as reduced-sugar cereal and fruit and milk in fast-food restaurants. The nation's largest food company, Kraft Foods Inc., announced this year that it would stop advertising its less-nutritious products on television and radio and in magazines aimed at children under 12.

By promoting exercise, the companies also hope to broaden the obesity debate beyond the issue of junk food to include the lack of exercise.

In addition to building playgrounds, PepsiCo -- the maker of Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Cheetos and Fritos -- offers a six-lesson curriculum to elementary and middle schools to teach students how to "balance the foods they choose with the ways they move," the company says.

Pepsi's rival, Coca-Cola Co., is spending $4 million to push its middle-school program, Live It, which gives pedometers to kids to get them more active. Coca-Cola hopes the program will be in 8,500 schools by the end of this school year.

McDonald's has signed up 31,000 elementary schools to participate in its Passport to Play, which teaches students games from around the world.

General Mills Inc. is giving about $2 million a year to schools and community groups for nutrition and fitness programs. Kellogg Co. announced a $275,000 grant for a similar effort. Kellogg also is promoting "Get in Step" on its packages and Web site, encouraging kids and parents to do two things every day: walk an extra mile and eat a bowl of cereal.

The fitness campaigns "illustrate how marketing has changed," said Paul Kurnit, head of KidShop, a New York marketing firm that advises food companies on promoting products to children. Companies that once relied primarily on television and print ads are now "trying to make their brands resonate with consumers -- adults and kids," Kurnit said. "A couple of years ago, food companies seemed to be deer caught in the headlights," stunned by the attention and criticism, he said.

Most of the fitness campaigns do not mention food products by name, although the corporate sponsorship is almost always noted, sometimes prominently, sometimes only in fine print.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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