- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 20, 2002

The average American child is getting fatter, thanks to a combination of tempting fast foods, lack of exercise and never leaving the computer/TV/video-game system. In fact, according to Datamonitor, 25 percent of children 6 to 17 years old are overweight. Hoping to help curtail the trend of expanding waistlines, Maryland Public Television has produced a Web site to encourage children 9 to 12 years old and their parents think about what they are eating.

The new cyber-stop follows the lives of six fictional middle school students as they learn about the relationship between food and their changing bodies, nutrition and life's most difficult years.

Plastic Fork Diaries

Site address: www.plasticforkdiaries.org

Creator:

The Plastic Fork Diaries team includes nutritionists, childhood development specialists, multimedia designers, Web developers, writers and researchers, all working under the direction of the education and interactive media departments at Maryland Public Television in Owings Mills. The project was made possible by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Creator quotable:

"We created this site to guide preteens as they make their own decisions about food and health," says Gina Montefusco, principal writer for the Plastic Fork Diaries. "PFD is based on real-life situations and problems that our readers can relate to. We think that learning about food and how it relates to nutrition, culture, emotions and society is an important part of growing up."

Word from the Webwise:

Presented as "day in the life" episodes that are updated every Wednesday, Plastic Fork Diaries scrutinizes the lives of too-busy-to-eat Jet Lee; vegetarian Bill Sandberg; Amber Halloway, whose mother constantly watches her weight; snacker Jason Younger; junk-food addict Oscar Vitelli; and picky eater Rita Nash as they live with and learn about food. The site also touches on another drama in each student's life; for example, Oscar's brother died, and Jason's mother is having a midlife crisis.

The program-heavy site uses pop-up windows, chunks of text, sound, animation and several levels of interactivity to relay its information about the body, history of food and the science surrounding eating right.

After an abstract, artsy introduction, visitors take the bus to Stockinda Middle School, and a map appears above the colorful cartoon segment. Red points on the school grid highlight the areas of interest. As each is clicked, another animation takes visitors either to a spot in the school, such as the computer lab, or to an area where the student keeps his personal effects, such as a desk or locker. Each place contains correspondence to learn about the student.

Five episodes were available for this review, and stories varied from the children enjoying a "Hit the Pavement" festival to their hating to give speeches to the school's installing vending machines. As visitors click on the various notes, journals, e-mails and memorandums found in each location, they get a bit of knowledge to go with the adolescent soap opera contained in the text links.

For example, the tale on vending machines, appropriately titled "Attack of the Killer Vending Machines," includes a note from Bill to his traveling brother, which leads to information on food labeling and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. An entry from Amber's journal about a school government meeting leads to a recipe for turkey roll-ups; an alert on a computer lab screen leads to the history of the hamburger; and the cafeteria bulletin board contains a real menu from Millard Central Middle School in Omaha, Neb.

Those looking only to learn can skip the episodes and go directly to the sections: Info Bites, Recipes, Inside U, Field Trip, Table Talk and 4u 2do. Each displays a search engine for a specific request, a list of links from the current episode and an icon to view all of the content available from that particular section.

Ease of use:

Visitors will need Macromedia Flash and Shockwave plug-ins, as well as a faster connection speed to efficiently enjoy the intricate production. I would expect that six months from now, as the content continues to grow, the site will be a very robust, fact-filled destination.

Don't miss:

Under the 4u 2do section, the Calorie Activity Transposer (CAT) quickly made me realize why I should not eat that extra Quarter Pounder with cheese. This depressing interactive counter shows how many laps a swimmer would have to make to burn off the calories consumed in any of 53 foods. Visitors pick a product, guess number of laps needed and click the "begin" icon to get an answer and watch a stick figure swim the length of the pool. By the way, it would take 105 laps to burn off the 525 units of energy in the hamburger I would have devoured in less than six minutes.

Family activity:

With a site devoted to food, the Recipes section comes loaded with plenty of tasty delicacies for the entire clan to create. More recipes will be added each week to the 22 already listed, which range from bean burritos to French toast to trail mix. Each recipe has a complete set of directions and tells whether a child can make it alone or with help from an adult, or if the recipe is for adults only, as is the case of eggplant parmigiana.

Cyber-sitter synopsis:

Plastic Fork Diaries cleverly educates within a well-designed environment and should keep 'tweens returning to enjoy the problems and triumphs of their new set of cyber-friends.

Overall grade: A

Remember: The information on the Internet is constantly changing. Please verify the advice on the sites before you act to be sure it's accurate and updated. Health sites, for example, should be discussed with your own physician.

Have a cool site for the family? Write to Joseph Szadkowski at Webwise, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send an e-mail message ([email protected]).


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