Dunk the Junk

Slam dunks, rap, and graffiti put the writing on the wall for kids

Published on October 29, 2013by Patches Magarro

In the well-known fight against childhood obesity, we’ve seen the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s My Plate—health guidelines for Head Start preschool programs—and new rules for school lunches.


Those sound a little like memorizing multiplication tables—something that will benefit kids in the long run, but will probably not get them to sit up and take notice.

What about rap music? Graffiti? Slam dunks? Kids already pay attention to those things, and so did Lewiston, Maine pediatrician Dr. Kevin Strong when he was their age.

This realization came when Strong was working with a hospital-owned group tasked with devising a program for an obesity clinic. To Strong, the model that the program was based on did not seem appropriate for those most in need. For underserved children from families that had low-incomes and unreliable access to transportation, the program design requiring multiple visits did not seem practical. He had seen patients struggling to make it in to see the doctor once per year.

Strong had a unique view of those office visits. “As a pediatrician, I feel like each visit is an opportunity for a creative interaction with a child… Kids’ minds aren’t weighed down with the stresses of life. They’re able to be creative and fun and that’s something that stimulates them and motivates their attention.”

Dunk the Junk is Strong’s alternative anti-obesity effort that reflects his creative vision. It leaves red tape behind and leverages popular elements of youth culture for inspiration and education on healthy choices.

That’s where Jacob Tucker comes in. Tucker took the NCAA dunk contest by storm in 2011, emerging out of obscure Illinois College, and coming up with the championship. Strong contacted Tucker about putting his dunking ability to work educating kids about food and exercise. As luck would have it, Tucker is a proponent of healthy living who follows a strict diet himself. He donates his time putting the “dunk” in Dunk the Junk.

Although Dunk the Junk is a small nonprofit organization, they took on giant corporation PepsiCo, with some success. These provocative images of Pepsi spokesperson, Beyoncé, are part of a video that countered her Super Bowl halftime show in 2013. Prior to shilling for Pepsi, Beyoncé promoted Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to raise a healthier generation of kids. The irony of those two seemingly at-odds relationships did not go unnoticed. Mark Bittman of the New York Times wrote an opinion piece about it, as did Abdul El-Sayed here in the 2×2 project.



Strong realized that kids who are the targets of Beyoncé’s endorsement aren’t likely to read commentary in media outlets like the New York Times. To get the message across to them that soda can play a role in illnesses like Type 2 diabetes, Dunk the Junk created the anti-soda video and took to Twitter.

High school recruits helped Dunk the Junk to execute a hashtag hijack during the Super Bowl halftime show. PepsiCo was running ads and sponsoring Beyoncé’s halftime show during the Super Bowl telecast. They created the hashtag #PepsiHalftime and promoted it prior to the big game. As the screenshot above demonstrates, Dunk the Junk and its teen Twitter activists succeeded in gaining the coveted top spot for photos during the halftime show.

  energy-drink strawberry-milk

There are lots of products aimed at children that should be limited or avoided. But, how’s a kid to know what’s good for them? Dunk the Junk has a countdown of the top ten foods kids should dunk.

A very practical and useful aspect of the countdown is that alternatives are suggested for the villainous foods on the list. Some obvious choices, candy for example, are noticeably absent from the list. Instead, Strong uses it as an opportunity to debunk the junk—or foods we see as healthy that are not. Some may perceive items like energy drinks and flavored milk as healthy, or at least benign, but this list recommends unsweetened tea or unflavored milk as superior substitutes. Strong primarily suggests fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products with no added sugar as replacements for the items in his countdown.

Soda is poison

Soda ranks number one atop Strong’s list of junk to dunk. The American Academy of Pediatrics might agree with that. This September, they published a study in their journal Pediatrics which confirmed that even children as young as 2- years-old showed undesirable effects from drinking one or more sugar-sweetened beverages per day. Compared to children who drank one or less sugar-sweetened beverages per week, they had higher BMI scores and a greater risk for obesity.

The study’s conclusion: “From a public health standpoint, strong consideration should be made toward policy changes leading to decreases in (sugar-sweetened beverage) consumption among children.”


The Educated Advocates Jay Caron and Mike Be performed their iTunes song “Big Soda” at Harvard Medical School.

Strong’s unique movement has joined the seemingly disparate worlds of popular culture and population health research to make facts about the risks poor food choices, like Pediatrics’ findings, more palatable to younger generations. On the iTunes song “Big Soda,” Dr. Robert H. Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist and professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, declares “This is a disaster. Soda is poison.”

The sample is from Lustig’s presentation called “Sugar—The Bitter Truth” on You Tube, where the video has over 3.9 million views. Some of Dunk the Junk’s graffiti artists were acquainted with a rap crew by the name of Educated Advocates.  Wanting to round out his youth outreach with some rap music, Strong introduced the artists to Lustig’s work, and “Big Soda” was the musical result.

All of Dunk the Junk’s web content is produced for kids, but The ShortyZ rap was produced by kids, another reason the program is compelling. Strong and his affiliates are not just telling kids why avoiding bad food is good for them, but giving them the tools to decide for themselves and spread the word creatively.

The ShortyZ came out of an  outreach effort Strong planned in Atlanta with NBA Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins, which was covered by CNN’s Sanjay Gupta. Despite those household names, the stars of the event were four fifth-graders from Emma Hutchinson Elementary School. The boys won a contest run by the school’s music teacher to create a rap about eating healthily.

Their chorus, “Dunk the junk, dunk the junk, throw away the candy that’s what’s up,” is as infectious and head-bob provoking as anything on pop radio. It’s proof of a mission accomplished.  Show kids the right path, so eventually they will walk it, paint, sing, or dunk it, on their own.

Edited by Joshua Brooks