Like TV cartoon characters pitching sugary
children's cereal, the Food Dudes of Ireland pitch food,
too. Only it's carrots and broccoli.
The Food Dudes are preteen actors playing superheroes
in an educational video series shown in some Irish schools.
They battle General Junk, who steals healthy food, robbing
the world of its life force.
The superheroes not only win on video - they win in
the school cafeteria, too. Kids who watch the videos
began eating more fruits and vegetables. Now, Ireland
is expanding this 150-school pilot program to the whole
"In some respects, we use the same techniques as multinationals
selling junk food, but we're on the side of the angels,"
said Dr. Fergus Lowe, a University of Wales psychologist
who was part of the team that devised the effort.
The Food Dudes series uses peer pressure, peer modeling
and a reward system to get kids to shun unhealthy foods.
Prizes like small toys, pencils and pens are an enticement.
And the superheroes are slightly older than their viewers,
making them believable role models. Each character gets
super powers from one of four healthy foods - broccoli,
carrots, tomaotes and raspberries.
In Ireland's pilot program, which began in 2005, children
aged 2 to 11, doubled the amount of fruits and vegetables
eaten and in some cases boosted consumption of such
foods by 10 to 14 times, the organizers say.
In one primary school, the fruit consumption of 5- and
6-year-olds more than doubled. The kids were originally
eating 28 percent of the fruit given them; six months
later they were eating nearly 60 percent. Vegetable
consumption jumped from 8 percent to 32 percent.
In a control school, where the program was not used,
no change in fruit or vegetable consumption was noted.
Lowe and his colleagues found the most dramatic results
in fussy eaters. Children who were initially the most
reluctant to eat fruits and veggies made the biggest
In one study published in the European Journal of Clinical
Nutrition, the children who ate the least amount of
fruits and vegetables went from eating just 4 percent
and 11 percent of their fruits and vegetables respectively
to 68 percent and 48 percent.
The World Health Organization recently honored Food
Dudes with a best practices award. The program was funded
by the Irish government, the European Union Commission
and Unilever, the world's second-largest food and detergent
Scotland has introduced a modified version of it in
210 schools in Glasgow, and England is experimenting
with the Food Dudes in schools in London and Plymouth.
"People had assumed that it would be very difficult
to make fruits and vegetables appealing to children,
but Food Dudes has proven that that's not true," said
Dr. Francesco Branca, WHO's European adviser for nutrition
and food security, who is not involved in the program.
Inspired by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, Britain has
recently been moving aggressively to improve the quality
of school food.
In 2005, the government announced it would bar school
cafeterias from serving hamburgers and hot dogs loaded
low-quality meats and fillers. Beginning in September,
soft drinks, chocolate bars and potato chips will be
outlawed from school vending machines.
The poor quality of school food first rose to the national
consciousness thanks to Oliver's TV series "Jamie's
School Dinners," which shocked Britons by showing them
exactly what kids were eating at school.