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Great move, Mickey, but will the kids agree?


Many organizations are promoting healthy eating as part of wellness programs for their own employees, but the Walt Disney Co. is taking that message to its most important customers: kids.

Burbank, Calif.-based Disney last week unveiled a plan to associate its characters and brands with more nutritious foods and to phase out food choices that are high in calories, fat and sugar. That means Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto and others will be seen more in marketing organic ravioli and fresh fruit than French fries and soda, and healthier menu choices will supplant less healthy ones at Disney's theme parks.

A variety of sources suggest that eating habits play a big role in childhood obesity, and any parent knows that many foods advertised to children tend to be sweet, fatty or both. Lifestyle habits ingrained early tend to stay that way. It's also true that obesity spawns a panoply of health problems that are costly to treat. That's why Disney's latest move is unusual--and smart.

Disney President and Chief Executive Officer Robert Iger said in a statement that "the Disney brand and characters are in a unique position to market food that kids will want and parents will feel good about giving them."

This not only is an example of good corporate citizenship but also a boost to Disney's reputational risk management.

Children the world over love Disney characters, and for many, a trip to Walt Disney World or Disneyland is a dream vacation. There is no denying the influence that Disney has over an impressionable demographic, and if this wellness initiative helps put kids on the path to healthy eating, many parents--including me--will be grateful.

I have been fortunate to visit Walt Disney World several times, both as a child and most recently with my own kids. Menu choices for adults are wonderfully varied, and the resort has some very good restaurants, but the options for kids have tended to be quite limited. I wouldn't call its kids' menu junk food, but I'm pleased to hear Disney is phasing in more and healthier entrees and snacks. Whether this succeeds is truly a question of whether the kids will eat it!

Marketing anything to youngsters is perilous business and, in our litigious culture, it's no surprise to learn about class-action lawsuits alleging harm to one group or another. Just ask tobacco companies. Cigarette makers agreed to pay billions of dollars to settle consolidated litigation that, among other charges, accused them of targeting children. Whether that was true is beside the point, though it's clear that many smokers started the habit early. In any case, it is no stretch to imagine some plaintiffs suing entertainment companies for marketing fatty foods: "You advertised products that put me in the hospital, so pay up!" or "I knew I should eat better and exercise, but I couldn't help myself, and somebody has to pay these doctor bills."

Disney's new program just might pre-empt such suits. At the very least, parents will have less reason to feel bad about caving in to their kids' pleadings to buy Disney products that promote good health.

Lest you think Disney is outlawing fun-to-eat foods, take heart. The company said it will continue to license "special-occasion sweets such as birthday cakes and seasonal candy" but will limit the number of "indulgence items." This sensible approach applies the time-honored principle of moderation. We all can benefit from that.

One of Disney's oldest characters, Jiminy Cricket, famously advised, "Let your conscience be your guide." It's refreshing, in this era of attention to corporate governance, to see a company take that advice. Perhaps Disney's example will inspire others to follow and help frustrated parents get their picky eaters to try healthier fare.