Kids TV

10.08.11

Sesame Street's Hunger Crusade

In a special tonight, Sesame Street introduces a Muppet who has to get food from a food pantry. Tricia Romano talks to a producer about spotlighting the issue—and the backlash.

Whatever you do, don’t call her the “poverty Muppet.” No, Lily, the special guest star of the Sesame Street prime-time one-hour special airing Sunday night at 7 p.m. ET, “Growing Hope Against Hunger,” is “food insecure.”

Put simply: Lily doesn’t always have three square meals a day. She’s not alone: According to a study by the USDA—nearly 17 million children are hungry in America and more than half (9.6 million) of those are less than 6 years old.

Perhaps it’s a sign that recession is here to stay when Elmo and Super Grover are joined by a new Muppet (if only briefly) whose primary story is that she is living in a family hit hard by the recession. Lily, who is all kinds of adorable and sweet, with her fuschia-colored fur and bright red hair, explains to Elmo that she’s there volunteering at the food pantry (Elmo’s first experience at one of those), and that she sometimes needs to get food from the food pantry herself.

“In 2009, 15 percent of U.S. households were identified as being food insecure, or defined as being with limited or uncertain availability to meet their basic needs due to a lack of financial resources,” said Melissa Dino, a producer on the PBS show: “Then, it’s estimated 17 million American children struggle with hunger—that’s really, really staggering in our country.”

One would think that an effort to educate children about healthy food habits and hunger in their country would be met with applause. One would be wrong. While across the pond, the papers thoughtfully asked: “Can a malnourished puppet highlight America’s hunger struggle?,” here, conservative-leaning sites are chomping at the bit, casting the Sesame Street characters as commie lefty-pinkos. Wrote The Blaze, a right-wing blog: “Uh-oh. It’s time to redistribute Cookie Monster’s cookies.”

Video screenshot

In a post on Gateway Pundit, titled “It’s an Obama World … Sesame Street to Introduce a Poor, Starving Muppet to Educate on Growing Number of Starving Children,” blogger Jim Hoft writes: “Meet Lily the starving Muppet. Here’s something else Barack Obama and Democrats can be proud of. With a record number of Americans on food stamps, record unemployment, increased debt and record poverty, Sesame Street will introduce a poor, starving Muppet to educate on the growing number of starving children in Obama’s America.”

(And the comments? Not surprisingly, they are even worse: Military Conservative wrote: “Lies and deceit. School breakfast & lunch. Nanny state. Reaching for the kids for the parents.”)

If there’s an agenda that the producers are pushing, it’s one of empathy, kindness, and helpfulness. Volunteering is given a heavy push. Evil things, all.

“The message we give for young children in the program is to be a friend.  It may allow them be empathetic toward children who may be experiencing this issue,” said Dino. “I’ve seen a few of the headlines today. Some people are calling her poverty-stricken. We’re not conveying that or going into her deep background, we don’t see her parents. She’s just explaining to Elmo that she doesn’t always have enough to eat in a child-appropriate way in that conversation.”

The Muppet portion of the program (the show also features a lengthy documentary segment offering glimpses into the lives of four families struggling to make ends meet) shows Lily explaining to a rather clueless Elmo that she is part of a large number of American children who are hungry.

Of Lily, the producer said, “We knew we wanted a character who was a child for children in the audience who had experienced this and would be reassured.”

Though Lily won’t be joining the cast full-time (but will live on via the website), one wonders if another popular character could impart that message on the main show: namely, one Oscar the Grouch.

Dino laughed. “We’ve been asked that: Why didn’t you use Oscar, he lives in a trash can?” said Dino.

But Oscar isn’t hungry—he’s just “a Grouch. They like smelly dirty things. He’s also an adult. He’s really kind of ageless. And really for our messaging and for the younger audience, we wanted a child to articulate this so the children in the audience could emphasize with them. Again, he’s a Grouch, he wants to live in a trash can. We don’t classify him as poor in the series.”

And to be fair, they don’t exactly classify Lily as poor either. Hence “food insecure.”

Perhaps that’s an overly sensitive term, but, says Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, senior vice president for outreach and educational practices at Sesame Workshop, “The issue is actually hunger.”

“The true definition and why the term ‘food insecurity’ is used, it’s not only lack of access consistently to food itself, but also it needs to be healthier quality food.”

“Currently in these times of recession, there are many families who are transitioned from a secure economic level and suddenly, because of a loss of a job or cutting back hours, or loss of a home, they are now experiencing hunger as well,” she said.

“We’ve been asked that: Why didn’t you use Oscar, he lives in a trash can?” said producer Melissa Dino.

“I think when we say ‘poverty’ we think of one group. One of the goals of this special is to show the diversity of families experiencing hunger.”

It’s not the most uplifting of topics for the Muppets—but Sesame Street’s offshoot special programs deal with heavier issues than the show’s kids’ TV counterparts, including death and grieving and military deployment in families.

As for the right-wing skeptics, Dino shrugs them off:

“If the reaction is to why we’re covering hunger, I go back to the statistics that one in four children in this country are struggling with hunger. And if just this character and this special can give comfort to that child that they are not alone, if this special can create awareness in this country to people who may not be aware that there is a problem with hunger, then we’ve done our job.”