In the "MyPyramid Blast Off" game, kids load a rocket ship with the right combination of healthy foods: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lowfat or fat-free milk and lean meat. Load up with the wrong kind of fuel, or too much of it, and you can't blast off to Planet Power.
The computer game is a part of the Food Pyramid for kids, unveiled Wednesday as a new version of the government's guide to eating right for children 6 to 11 years old.
A food industry group beat the government to the punch: Weekly Reader newspaper delivered its own kids' pyramid curriculum, sponsored by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, to thousands of classrooms earlier this week.
Both are based on the new pyramid for grown-ups that the government rolled out in April.
"Homework can be fun, don't you think?" Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns asked a roomful of students at Samuel Tucker Elementary School in Northern Virginia.
"Noooooooooooooo," the kids groaned.
"We're going to show you some fun homework," Johanns said, demonstrating the "MyPyramid Blast Off" game.
Third-grader Saurav Khulal said the game was fun as he played it in the school computer lab. Saurav said he might play it "a little bit" at home, but he prefers games like Pokemon during the half-hour of computer time his parents allow.
Classmate Christine LaPierre played the game with Eric Bost, the Agriculture Department's under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, clicking and dragging a veggie burger — her mom's favorite — spinach salad and chicken on board the ship. Christine said she'll play the game again, but, "My brother won't like it. He would keep on putting cookies on there."
The government introduced the new adult guide for healthy eating in April, tipping the old pyramid on its side and adding a stair-climbing stick figure.
The kids' pyramid is more cartoonish, with a girl running up the steps to the top and kids playing soccer, baseball and basketball, walking a dog, riding a bike, stretching, picnicking and even doing yoga.
Kids need an hour of exercise each day, Johanns told the students. Obesity among children and teenagers more than doubled in the past 30 years.
"We don't want this generation of young people to be the first generation that lives fewer years than their parents," Johanns said.
Like the adults' version, the kids' pyramid drew criticism for not going far enough.
"The materials don't even have the guts to urge kids to drink less soda pop, to eat less candy," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"If the government really wanted to improve kids' eating habits, it would get junk food out of schools, it would ban junk food advertising on television, it would require calorie counts on fast-food menu boards and sponsor hard-hitting educational materials," he said. "That would really drive home the point that these empty-calorie foods are causing obesity."
Elizabeth Pivonka, a dietitian who heads the nonprofit Produce for Better Health Foundation, said the new kids' pyramid is a positive step, but more needs to be done.
For example, she said, the government should expand a program operating in only a few states that puts fresh fruits and vegetables in schools for free.
Susan Lamontagne, spokeswoman for the Eat Smart, Grow Strong campaign, organized by food companies and parents, said the new pyramids don't encourage people to eat fruits and veggies.
"If the whole point was to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables among kids — and adults — why didn't they just turn the pyramid upside down?" she said.
In the old pyramid, grains filled the bottom, fats and sweets were at the tip, and vegetables, fruits, dairy products were in the middle. The new "MyPyramid" graphic interprets the food groups as rainbow-colored bands running vertically from the tip to the base.
The Weekly Reader materials are also based on the new "MyPyramid" graphic, but there are differences: Both say oils in your diet should come from fish, nuts, vegetable oils and other healthy sources, but the industry poster appears to give equal billing to oils as a food group, while the government poster reads, "Oils are not a food group."
A spokeswoman for the grocery manufacturers, Stephanie Childs, said the Weekly Reader materials complement the government's.
"We recognize that USDA has limited funding to promote this," she said. "All along, we've said it is everyone's responsibility to step up and help spread USDA's nutrition messages."