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Reading, Writing and Atkins

Many schools have barely gotten the Coke machines off campus when along comes a nationwide nutrition-education program for schoolchildren funded by the corporate purveyors of a controversial diet. Atkins Nutritionals Inc. has made agreements with various school-related groups, including the National Assn. of State Boards of Education and the National Education Assn., to combat childhood obesity.

Some adults may swear by the low-carb craze, but pushing commercial diets with no proven long-term benefits onto captive schoolchildren is not the kind of public-private partnership that anyone should be happy to see. The school groups promise that the nutrition and diet information that children get will be unaffected by the teachings of their corporate sponsor. And Atkins’ medical director, Dr. Stuart L. Trager, says the firm doesn’t advocate its diet for children unless prescribed by a doctor.

But Atkins has made it clear the corporation isn’t planning to sit back and play the role of passive sugar daddy. In a news release, Trager said the company would provide educational information that “focuses on some of Dr. Atkins’ basic precepts.” These include limiting the intake of some kinds of fruits and vegetables, an idea frowned upon by federal nutrition experts. And when the National Education Assn. sets up its Atkins-funded health website, how free will it feel to advise against fad diets or limiting that Atkins staple, red meat?

No matter what the health information will be, one message is clear: Atkins, a company with a controversial reputation on nutrition and diet, gets the implied imprimatur of the schools by having its name and logo associated with a curriculum on health and fitness. Like the Coke machines that brought in money for schools but recently were kicked off many campuses over concerns about obesity, it’s all about branding and an unspoken school endorsement. Love Atkins or hate it, the company shouldn’t be able to buy its way to credibility with children via the public schools.

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