Skip the Krabby Patty, SpongeBob SquarePants is going veggie.
Pictures of the happy-go-lucky sponge will appear on packages of carrots, spinach and citrus starting next month, under licensing deals with produce companies. Dora the Explorer and other Nickelodeon characters also will debut on fruit and vegetable packages, according to the network.
SpongeBob already helps pitch a cart full of foods ranging from cereal to ice cream, but Nickelodeon executives say the foray into the wholesome fruit and vegetable market complements network programming attempts to coax kids to eat healthier.
``If we can use our popular characters and help kids eat better, then we're all for that,'' said Sherice Torres, vice president of Nickelodeon & Viacom Consumer Products.
The deals come as TV executives are countering criticism they contribute to the childhood obesity boom. A crop of kids' shows try to inspire young viewers to get up off the couch, like ``Jo Jo's Circus'' on Disney and Nickelodeon's ``Lazy Town.'' Even Sesame Street's Cookie Monster changed his tune earlier this year, singing, ``A Cookie Is a Sometimes Food.''
Nickelodeon also announced Wednesday the launch of public service announcements promoting balanced breakfast, including an animated ``It's Breakfast Time'' spot featuring singing spoons and forks. It will be added to existing programming that encourages kids to exercise.
Under the licensing deals, SpongeBob will be giving a thumbs-up on bags of spinach from Boskovich Farms. SpongeBob, Dora and ``Lazy Town'' characters will appear on bags of carrots from Grimmway Enterprises, and a stable of Nickelodeon characters will adorn bags of oranges, tangerines and clementines from LGS Specialty Sales.
SpongeBob and Co. are not the first cartoon characters to go wholesome. Clifford the Big Red Dog lent his name to an organic cereal, Clifford Crunch. And Arthur the aardvark appears on some products made by Annie's Homegrown, including cans of organic Arthur Loops.
But established cartoon characters have yet to migrate noticeably beyond the cereal and candy aisles to the produce and organic sections.
Money is one reason. Organic and produce operations, which tend to be smaller, simply are not able to pay for big-time animated characters. The advertising budget for Stonyfield Farm, for instance, is a fraction of the ad budget of big food corporations, even though it's the top-selling organic yogurt maker in the country, said spokeswoman Cathleen Toomey.
Toomey said even if Stonyfield could afford that kind of licensing deal, the company would be careful not to sully its wholesome image with a character that already shills for sugary treats.
``I think we'd want a fairly pure character,'' Toomey said. ``In a way, it's putting our brand at risk to identify it with a cartoon character that may not share the values.''
For example, SpongeBob has appeared on boxes of cookie-dough ice cream from Breyers and his own SpongeBob SquarePants cereal described on the Kellogg's Web site as a ``lightly sweetened, puffed, jellyfish-shaped cereal.''
Nickelodeon's Torres said part of the 18 months it took to negotiate the new veggie licensing deals was spent educating produce people about the value of licensing. She declined to reveal financial terms, but said ``these are a bit of a departure from our standard licensing deals.''
Torres said the network wants to strike similar licensing agreements even as they work with mainline food makers to make sure SpongeBob products are reformulated to make them healthier.
Of course, some child health advocates grumble that the best way to raise healthy kids is to cut the sweets and turn off the TV.
Nickelodeon public affairs vice president Marva Smalls responds that while TV and ice cream are part of kids' lives, the network is using it's influence to nudge kids toward a balanced lifestyle _ whether through SpongeBob spinach or promoting exercise.
``We're the first to say turn off the TV,'' she said, ``we'll be here when you get back.''