Peeps show turning eyes at UNH

Peeps playing soccer. Peeps playing soccer. (University of New Hampshire Health Services)
By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / May 9, 2010

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It’s a sugar-encrusted parallel universe.

Marshmallow muscle-heads with sweatbands crank out push-ups. Glucose-rich gardeners in dainty sun hats cultivate vegetables. Sunbathers protect their glittery, saccharine skin with SPF 30 sunblock.

Peeps, those pastel-colored bunnies and chicks ubiquitous in Easter baskets, are often considered the harbinger of cavities and the trigger of sugar highs.

But for the sticky-fingered architects of this miniature Peeps world at the University of New Hampshire, the sugar-coated treats represent something altogether unexpected: health.

The molded marshmallow candies served as set pieces in the university’s first “Peeps Show’’ contest in April, a sweet homage to various ways to be healthy.

“It’s an American icon. We all grew up with Peeps, whether we ate them or not,’’ said Dawn Zitney of UNH’s Health Services. So, organizers wondered, “How can we use them for something creative?’’

And inevitably they did — just take a “peep.’’

Svelte bunnies train with pipe-cleaner jump ropes or shinny up rock faces; some frolic in the snow or sit beside dusky campfires (and perhaps scare one another with ghost stories about their roasted ancestors).

Meanwhile, Peeps with back braces, walking supports, and different-colored halves represent diversity; mashed and melted chicks are an empty-calorie treatise on the dangers of neglecting sunscreen; and bunnies in risqué poses do, uh, what bunnies are known to do best, with a condom-shaped advisory, “Just wear it,’’ all around them.

Yeah, it’s silly, Zitney said — but that fits right into the whole idea. “Humor is good for our overall wellness,’’ she said.

“We don’t categorize foods as good or bad; we try to teach students about moderation,’’ she said. “Don’t eat 10 boxes of Peeps, indulge in one or two.’’

If the numbers are any barometer for Peeps-consumption habits, though, not many people have taken that advice.

According to Just Born — the Pennsylvania-based company that has made the Easter-basket staple since the 1950s — Peeps eaten on the spring holiday can more than circle the earth.

But we’re not just talking straight out of the package here: They’re munched frozen, stale, dipped in chocolate, or topped on pizza, cappuccino — even sushi.

Clearly, there’s something people find irresistible about them, and they celebrate the squishy, empty-eyed confections through a fan club and a Facebook page with 47,500 brethren. To meet demand, there’s even a Peeps store in Maryland.

And, the treats seem born to be stars: They’ve been fodder for dozens of diorama challenges, including an annual contest by The Washington Post with more than 1,100 entries this year.

UNH, meanwhile, had roughly 20 participants — and some students’ grades depended on it.

Associate professor Lou Ann Griswold assigned the challenge, with a paper in an occupational therapy class. Students had to relate the dioramas to coursework focused on occupation, identity, and disability, she said.

What they came up with: Peeps swimming and boating, romping on playgrounds, picnicking, and playing soccer.

Occupational therapists look at health beyond nutrition and medicine — it’s “being able to do activities that are important and meaningful,’’ Griswold said in an e-mail.

Which, for Christina Rowland, happens to be yoga.

Her Peeps, in a winning diorama, are in a New Age studio — clean, dimly lighted, with plants, mirrors, and encouragements tacked to the walls. Gathered on mats, bunnies arch their backs in an upward peep, a play on the yoga pose downward dog.

Rowland described logistical challenges in getting the right pose with floral wire before the candies stiffened.

One tip she offers: Glue and marshmallow don’t mix.