UNC Criticized For 'Krispy Kreme Challenge Children's Specialty Clinic'

Nov 13, 2015

The name that UNC Health Care is giving a children's clinic in Raleigh has been raising a lot of eyebrows. It'd be called the Krispy Kreme Challenge Children's Specialty Clinic. But criticism from the medical community at UNC and elsewhere is making the health care system rethink that choice.

Since the announcement last month, UNC-Chapel Hill nutrition professor Barry Popkin has heard from a lot of colleagues wondering, "What the heck is going on at UNC?"

"For them to name it this way to give advertisement to a very unhealthy food high in added sugar and unhealthy fats and refined carbs - with no nutritional value - was quite surprising to people around the nation," Popkin says.

That's especially true since North Carolina ranks poorly on childhood obesity.

For Krispy Kreme, the advertisement is both free and unintentional. Leslie Nelson is head of UNC Children's fundraising and communications, and she says there's been confusion about the role of the Winston-Salem based doughnut company.

"The corporation is definitely not part of the name," she says. "It's named for a race! The name of the doughnut happens to be in the name of the race. But at the heart of it, it's about the race and about these kids and about the Park Scholars at N.C. State."

The Krispy Kreme Challenge is a race that N.C. State students created about 10 years ago. They eventually got permission to use the company's name, but they still have to pay for the doughnuts.

Junior Chris Cooper is a race director.

"You run 2.5 miles, starting at the N.C. State Belltower, and then the challengers eat a dozen doughnuts," he says. "The casual runners normally just pick their doughnuts up and keep running. And then you run 2.5 miles back to the Belltower."

If all that doughnut pounding and distance running sounds kind of sickening, Cooper says it can be.

"After Krispy Kreme when people are running back, there is normally a fair amount of throw-up that happens," he says. "We have a group of students whose job is to go around and clean up the streets."

Gross, sure. But it's raised more than $1 million for UNC Children's Hospital and clinics. Race leaders committed to raise another $1 million at the Raleigh clinic announcement.

That makes the criticism frustrating to Leslie Nelson.

"Behind all of this is a group that's committed to making a difference for our patients and families," she says.

Nelson says UNC is now having conversations about whether to go through with the name change. An online petition to scrap it has gathered about 13,000 signatures so far.

In health care, public fallout over awkwardly paired sponsorships or gifts has been increasing, according to Marion Nestle.

"Once these things come under public scrutiny, they don't work as well," she says tongue-in-cheek. Nestle is a public health professor at NYU and a former nutrition policy advisor for the federal government.

She says Coca-Cola's corporate partnership with the American Academy of Family Physicians is a high-profile example.  

"There was a big demonstration in front of a California hospital a few years ago in which physicians burned their membership cards in the academy in protest," she says.

The academy and Coke announced this summer they're ending their deal.

Nestle says that's certainly not apples to apples with what's happening at the UNC clinic. But she does say that putting Krispy Kreme in the name – for whatever reason – sets a bad example for kids.

N.C. State student Chris Cooper says if UNC backs off the name change, he's OK with that.

"I don't think anyone in the organization was really excited about us having a name on the clinic; I think a lot more of it was how are we going to use this name to help the children's hospital even more," like by attracting more people to the race and raising more money, he says. 

But Cooper says if it's not helping, then he has no attachment to it.