'Sesame Street' tackles poverty, hunger with new muppet

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A new muppet will make its way to Sesame Street come October 9, but the typical sunny days touted in the show’s infamous theme song are not in the cards for the latest addition.

Sesame Street’s new character Lily is a “food insecure” puppet whose family struggles with hunger issues. The hot pink puppet with a purple nose and turquoise eyelids will make her debut in a PBS special called Growing Hope Against Hunger.

The hour-long show will tackle the societal issue of hunger among low- and moderate-income families in the US. And with the USDA reporting that nearly one in four American families have limited access to affordable and nutritious food, the timing of the special is especially relevant.

theGrio opinion: 40 years of diversity makes Sesame Street a unique destination

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“Hunger is a huge problem that is on the rise,” said Rocío Galarza, senior director of content planning and design outreach at Sesame Workshop, which is the non-profit arm of the show responsible for creating educational content. “We have been working on this topic for a while and we were lucky to get funding from Wal-Mart to create this awareness campaign.”

Lily is the first character on Sesame Street to deal with the issue of food insecurity, which is an effect of economic poverty. Some may think that Oscar the Grouch is a poverty stricken character but according to Galarza, the thrash can bound muppet is not poor but from Grouchland and that is the reason for his appearance.

Sesame Street may be for kids, but the show has a history of addressing important issues that are difficult for parents and guardians to address with children such as bullying and grief following the death of a parent.

The kid-friendly show has not shied away from addressing sensitive subjects such as race and diversity either. Sesame Street debuted in 1969 and was one of the firsts during that time to feature a multicultural cast in non-stereotypical roles. For instance, the long-time character Gordon continues to this day to be a positive portrayal of an African-American male on television.
The show’s four decade long display of diversity still makes it the ideal destination for both kids and adults. Last year, the show had the Internet buzzing when a video of a natural hair muppet went viral. The muppet in the clip proudly proclaimed her love for her curly afro via a cute song and dance. The inspiration behind the muppet was the Ethiopian-born adopted daughter of Sesame Street head writer Joey Mazzarino.

Mazzarrino told NPR, “She wanted to have long blonde hair and straight hair, and she wanted to be able to bounce it around,” like the dolls she was playing with.

While the natural hair muppet portrayed a character of ethnic descent, Galarza wants people to know that Lily does not represent any particular ethnicity but an experience.

“She’s pink and that is actually telling,” said Galarza. “Lily represents families that are struggling with hunger. She doesn’t have an ethnicity and muppets usually don’t.”

Galarza went on to put to bed the other misconception that Lily is impoverished.

“Lily’s family is experiencing the lack of food but we don’t characterize families or children as impoverished,” said Galarza. “The only time we use an adjective like that is to describe the way a child or family overcomes or the way they handle the situation.”

The special set to air at 7:00 p.m. on October 9 will feature the usual singing and dancing that Sesame Street is known for. In one of her two featured songs, Lily exclaims, “we all can make a difference, we all can help.”

And that sentiment is exactly what Sesame Street creators want people to take away from the special.

“First and foremost, we are hoping to let families know that they are not alone,” said Galarza. “For families that are not struggling with hunger, we want them to get ideas on how they can help the community.”