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FRUITS, VEGGIES BECOME THE MAIN COURSE ON 'SESAME STREET'

There is a panic in the land, and it started on "Sesame Street."

The rumors, they are rampant. Taken together, in dark tones, and one could fear that the beloved boulevard is rapidly transforming into the Avenue of the Politically Correct Puppetariat.

Elmo and Zoe are on an exercise routine. Singing vegetables and talking fruit have invaded the neighborhood. Miles has a new song. It is about broccoli.

And, darkest of all, Cookie Monster has been stripped of his piles of quickly and loudly consumed chocolate-chip cookies.

From California to Australia, from New York to Oregon, fears have arisen about the sanctity of "Sesame Street," the children's show that just started its 36th season. The Los Angeles Times editorialized on the crisis, a staffer at the South Australia Sunday Mail declared herself "rocked to my foundations" by Cookie Monster's transformation, and the Associated Press bemoaned Cookie's new circumstances in a missive sent across the land. The blue fuzzball even wound up on this week's "Hit List" in Entertainment Weekly.

"Cookie Monster To Cut Down on Sugary Treats" reads the EW item, followed by a rant that begins with the word "Sellout!"

Rosemarie Truglio, vice president of education and research for Sesame Workshop, sighs when asked about all the fuss.

"We are not putting Cookie on a diet," she says, with a hint of patient exasperation. "We're not taking cookies away from Cookie. It's about teaching moderation.

"We are not about intervention, we are about prevention -- putting healthy habits in (kids') daily lives."

For the season that began April 4, "Sesame Street" decided to target the rampant problem of childhood obesity. So at the top of every show, a "healthy habit" is introduced. There are new characters: singing eggplants and sweet potatoes, talking apples and bananas. Elmo and Zoe play a healthy food game and learn about the benefits of exercise while jumping rope. More than a dozen senators agreed to film "healthy habit" public service announcements with the "Sesame Street" Muppets.

Baby Bear tells a story that involves those singing vegetables in a wizard's garden. Grover moonlights as an exercise instructor. Miles has a new song: "Broccoli Is Good," sung to the tune of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode."

And remember "C Is for Cookie," the Cookie Monster anthem? Well, there's a new song in town, and it's called "A Cookie Is a Sometime Food." The parody -- this one based on "Porgy and Bess's" "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing" -- is sung by Hoots the Owl and a banana, some grapes, a pineapple and an apple.

So Cookie eats his fruit (not the singing ones, of course) enthusiastically. But at the end, he wants his cookies. And gets them.

Well, one.

"That sounds perfectly reasonable," says Margo Wooten of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "You can't build a whole diet around cookies!"

Teaching kids about good life habits fits in perfectly with the mission of "Sesame Street," long considered the hallmark of educational children's programming. So let's just accept it, and admit it. This is good for kids. Most parents probably hope, deep down, that Elmo can get their 3-year-olds to eat the peas instead of dropping them under the table.

Somehow, though, that doesn't make it easier to accept that Cookie Monster is now tossing salads on the Sesame Workshop Web site. What's next, Scooby-Doo restricted to organic kibble? The clink for Count Chocula, Toucan Sam and Cap'n Crunch?

"Kudos to Cookie Monster for trying new things," says Ronald McDonald in a statement through his corporate office.

Ronald understands Cookie Monster's dilemma. He, too, has undergone such a transformation. Yogurt has made its way onto McDonald's Happy Meal menu. Grilled chicken salads are now available for moms. This January, Ronald was promoted to "Chief Happiness Officer" -- which, translated, turns out to be a "character who tells schoolchildren that french fry consumption equals a need for exercise."

"It's great to know you can have your cookies and eat fruit, too," The Ronald said, via e-mail. "It's cool to try different foods and fun to stay active and fit. The way I look at it, it's what I eat and what I do and I'm lovin' it. Let's do lunch!"

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