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Making School Lunchrooms Smarter

October 25, 2010

Behavioral economics and school nutrition

Don’t ban it, move it. This is one conclusion of a new Cornell University study. In one set of schools, sales of fruit increased by 100% when it was moved to a colorful bowl. Salad bar sales tripled when the cart was placed in front of cash registers.

These findings, which were presented Friday at the School Nutrition Association’s New York conference, underscore the easiest way to lunchroom choices is to make an apple more convenient, cool, and visible than a cookie. The conclusion of six different studies with over 11,000 middle and high school studies show that psychology and economics might be better outlawing tasty food.

“It’s not nutrition until someone eats it. You need to have foods that kids will eat, or they won’t eat ““ or they’ll eat worse” said Chris Wallace, Food Service Director for the Corning, New York School District.

We’re focusing on giving Food Service Directors “low-cost/no cost” changes they can make immediately, said Brian Wansink, Co-Director of the Cornell Center of Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs (BEN). During his research presentation, he described other studies which showed:

* Decreasing the size of bowls from 18 ounces to 14 ounces reduced the size of the average cereal serving at breakfast by 24 percent.

* Creating a speedy “healthy express” checkout line for students not buying calorie-dense foods like desserts and chips, doubled the sales of healthy sandwiches.

* Moving the chocolate milk behind the plain milk led students to buy more plain milk.

* Keeping ice cream in a freezer with a closed opaque top significantly reduced the amount of ice cream taken.

* When cafeteria workers asked each child, “Do you want a salad?” salad sales increased by a third.

Image Caption: Brian Wansink and David R. Just discuss changes to an Elementary School that would help children make healthier choices. They are co-directors of the new USDA-funded Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs. Credit: Jason Koski, Cornell Press

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