Ten years ago, in a conversation with my wife, a pediatric endocrinologist, about the upsurge of obese children, she said, "Obesity is one of the hardest things to treat, but it is so much easier to prevent."
That year, approximately 14 percent of children ages 2 to 5 were considered obese. So when Sesame Street was deciding what was most important to teach preschool children in this country at the time, the answer was obvious. And so our Healthy Habits for Life program was born, giving children and their caregivers simple but powerful messages about nutrition, physical activity, and "eating one's colors."
However, there was an obstacle standing in the way of revamping Sesame Street into a completely healthy environment: a certain monster with a penchant for over-consuming cookies. As Executive Producer at the time, I had to walk the line between preserving the personality of one of our most beloved characters and allowing Cookie Monster to become an advocate for healthy living. The solution was not to deprive Cookie Monster of his favorite desserts. Not at all. Instead, we decided to have him model the difference between "sometimes foods" and "anytime foods."
Popular media was surprised by this healthier Cookie Monster. Commentators such as Jon Stewart teased Cookie about his inability to decide between cookies and fruit, and Saturday Night Live declared that Cookie had become a "Pilates Monster." In fact, Cookie Monster's newfound healthy pursuits received such press interest (and sometimes tongue-in-cheek ridicule) that his message wound up sparking a conversation that reached far beyond the traditional Sesame Street audience and into households across the nation. (And no, he's never been the "Veggie Monster.")
In order to take full advantage of that conversation, we at Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind Sesame Street, worked to embed the Healthy Habits for Life program in places where it could truly make a difference. We created a community engagement initiative with DuPont Hospital physicians to place the program in preschool classrooms; we worked with the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program in Washington, DC to distribute five million of our Healthy Habits for Life resources to children and their parents; and we tested our work over and over to make sure our projects were having the desired effect of impacting childhood obesity in this country.
Like everyone, we are celebrating the recent 43 percent drop in childhood obesity rates among preschoolers in the past decade. And we are committed to continuing our efforts through our Healthy Habits for Life initiative. Our focus has always been on helping children grow up smarter, stronger, kinder so that they may reach their highest potential. And if our favorite googly-eyed furry friend encouraged even one child to pick up a banana instead of a cookie one afternoon, then in the words of Cookie Monster himself, "Me happy."
Dr. Lewis J. Bernstein is Executive Vice President, Education, Research & Outreach for Sesame Workshop.