A new report by the Kaiser Family Foundation raises questions about the content targeting children on food-makers’ web sites. The report comes as school systems nationwide prepare to adopt written wellness plans this fall under a new federal law.

When they play Chips Ahoy Soccer Shootout and Pop-Tart Slalom online, kids aren’t just having fun–they also are subjects in marketing efforts to sell food, the Kaiser study finds. Though the foundation’s report did not pass judgment on such online “advergames,” it did lead to a confrontation over the food industry’s role in childhood obesity during a July 19 forum.

“Overwhelmingly … the web sites [kids] are looking at are for foods that are of poor nutritional quality,” said Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group.

A Kraft Foods executive said experts disagree on the impact of advertising food to kids. “There are many different factors contributing to childhood obesity,” said Nancy Daigler, a Kraft vice president.

Kraft said last year it would stop advertising unhealthy food to kids and will extend that policy to the internet by the end of 2006, Daigler said. Kraft has reformulated many of its products, such as Alphabits cereal, to meet its guidelines for healthier foods, she said. Food marketing to children has been getting more scrutiny as more children develop weight problems. The rate of obesity among children has climbed to 17 percent, compared with 14 percent four years ago, according to the government.

To date, research has focused mostly on TV commercials, which are far more widespread than “advergames” and other types of online marketing.

Food brand web sites are unique, however, in that they involve children more deeply and for longer periods of time, the study found.

Children who visit the sites have many opportunities to interact with candy bars, cereals, and snack foods in a fun, branded environment, said Vicky Rideout, who oversaw the research for the private foundation that focuses on health-care issues.

“It’s potentially a lot more powerful as a marketing tool than TV ever dreamed of being,” Rideout said.

Researchers analyzed 77 web sites with more than 4,000 pages, focusing on the top food brands that use television to target kids. Researchers found that 85 percent also use web sites.

The sites were visited more than 12.2 million times during the second quarter of last year, the study said. In addition to playing games, kids can watch special internet-only commercials, such as “webisodes” featuring Froot Loops’ Toucan Sam and Lucky Charms’ Lucky the Leprechaun. Kids also can eMail friends about the web sites.

Findings include:

“Games are offered on three-quarters of the web sites.

“Two-thirds of the sites encourage kids to send eMails telling their friends about a product or inviting them to visit a web site.

“Half of the web sites offer TV commercials for kids to play.

“More than a quarter of the sites let kids join so they can be told about new brands, exclusive offers, and new TV commercials. Only half required a parent’s permission.

The report comes as schools nationwide are promising to keep closer tabs on student lunch trays, pull sugary treats from vending machines and classroom celebrations, and encourage more pulse-raising activities during the school day. Such efforts are the result of a federal mandate to adopt nutrition and exercise goals before classes resume in the fall.

The law’s primary objective is straightforward: combating rising childhood obesity rates. Overweight children miss more school than their average-weight counterparts, according to the National School Boards Association. Backers also argue that reducing sugar in students’ diets leads to greater focus in the classroom.

Junk-food marketing to kids was the subject of a report last year by the congressionally chartered Institute of Medicine.

Panel members stopped short of blaming TV advertising for obesity in kids. But they said the evidence of a direct link was so compelling, only healthy foods should be marketed to kids.

One panelist, University of Arizona communications professor Dale Kunkel, joined in the July 19 discussion. Very young children are vulnerable to marketing and do not understand the inherent exaggeration and bias, Kunkel said.

“Is it fair to target children? The research says that no, it is not,” he said.