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Company sells a sweet message at Tampa school

TAMPA — Friday was a very special day at Pizzo Elementary School on the University of South Florida campus. The Hillsborough School Board and Mayor Pam Iorio said so.

In proclamations issued this week, they declared Friday to be "Aunt Jemima Frozen Breakfast Education Day." For the school, that meant free pancakes, chocolate syrup, M&M's and whipped cream. Also a check for $2,500 from Aunt Jemima, and another $2,500 for the USF athletic department.

Even in an era where schools partner with businesses all the time, was this event — with all those Aunt Jemima logos, 45 minutes out of the instructional day and coupons sent home to parents — more salesmanship than education?

Company officials said they weren't selling anything except the message to eat a healthy breakfast.

"From Aunt Jemima Frozen Pancakes' point of view, the purpose is to educate parents and kids that breakfast is important," said spokeswoman Stacey Bender.

The party began first thing Friday morning. Waiting for students was a full contingent of USF cheerleaders, a couple of baseball players and the university mascot, Rocky the Bull.

Principal Pam Wilkins kicked off the show with a message about eating right in the morning. "It's fuel for the brain," she said. "We have to have that energy. So make sure you eat breakfast every day."

The students — more than half of the 624 enrolled at Pizzo — earned the treat for participating in the school's behavior management program. Wilkins said she okayed the party to provide a "nice, hands-on reward," not for the money or to sell pancakes.

But the debate over commercial messages in schools has been going on for years. Back in the 1990s, Consumers Union editorialized against the trend in a report titled "Captive Kids,'' saying advertising in schools "poses a significant and growing threat to the integrity of education in America.''

This year, budget pressures have prompted several states to consider allowing advertising on the sides of school buses, something Florida already allows.

Bender, the Aunt Jemima spokeswoman, said it was reasonable for parents to scrutinize the messages their kids hear at school.

"You do want to be sensitive," she said. "You don't want children and parents to feel we're pushing brands in front of them."

Still, everyone wins if companies can partner with public schools to urge healthy eating, said Bender, who graduated from USF in 1981.

"Kids are healthier, they stay trimmer, they can concentrate," she added. "And we send the kids home with some great recipes and coupons. Sure, we'd love them to use our breakfast. But if they're eating breakfast, that's a good end result."

Hillsborough school district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said the board issued its Aunt Jemima proclamation the same way it always does — without committee meetings or a lot of second-guessing.

"There was a request to do that, and we're happy to do it," he said. "We have all sorts of relationships with some companies that I think are good companies and they support education. And we're happy to support them back."

On stage at Pizzo, USF baseball players held up placards with Aunt Jemima's image.

"The biggest question here is, who likes pancakes?" shouted outfielder Alex Mendez, 20, and the kids flung up their hands. He said it was important to start with a good breakfast "so you don't have a crash midday."

Rocky the Bull rubbed his stomach, just in case anyone had missed the message.

But the kids needed little urging; they knew just what to do.

Before long, many of their whole-grain pancakes had virtually disappeared under a lather of syrup and other treats.

"Usually I just have a little bit of whipped cream," admitted 10-year-old Katlyn Keith. "And not all the M&M's."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Company sells a sweet message at Tampa school 10/29/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 29, 2010 9:59pm]
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