School Lunch the Old Way

School Lunch. Remember the good old days, the tater tots and salisbury steaks, the cliques and misbehavior? These days, school lunch has become a hot topic. With the obesity epidemic, suddenly schools are under fire for serving unhealthy food.

Michelle Obama has made the improvement of school lunch a priority, and across the country, dedicated parents and healthy food advocates are putting their earnest efforts into getting the best food they can on those lunchroom trays. Vegetarian and vegan options are more available than ever before. But the cost of good food is a real problem for cash-strapped schools, as is the psychology of getting kids to pick an apple over a cookie.

Now, there is a new program, called Smarter Lunchrooms, designed by the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics In Child Nutrition Programs, which is all about surmounting the hurdles of both cost and psychology, and getting kids on the right track.

Parents could learn from the research that is going into this. You may remember Dr Brian Wansink from his book Mindless Eating  Why We Eat More Than We Think. At the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, he and his associates make a science out of studying why people choose to eat what they do. Over and over, Dr Wansink finds that what we believe about food is easily manipulated with a change in the name, environment, or way it is served. While these kinds of tricks are often used by restaurants to make a profit, they can also be used by savvy consumers to get a grip on over-eating and make better choices.

See my previous post about Mindless Eating:

Now, he’s applying all the tricks of the trade to getting kids to eat right.

As Dr Wansink said to me, “It’s not nutrition until somebody eats it. Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics In Child Nutrition Programs will be a game changer.”

Wansink and his fellow researchers have a strategy. They use a technique called Behavioral Economics. Basically, you can’t force anyone to eat well. But people are easily swayed. Banning a food causes rebellion. Giving people two healthy options and a choice between them, like a Mom saying, “do you want carrots or apples?” causes a steep rise in the consumption of carrots and apples.

“It’s better to nudge a student to choose and apple over a cookie than to tell them they can’t have a cookie.” Says Wansink.

Using physical proximity is also useful. Putting vending machines far from the cafeteria, and a salad bar smack in the middle of the room so that you have to walk around it causes vending to go down, salads up. And if you stand in line at a cash register, there are usually impulse purchases there for you to stare at. Replacing those with fruit causes a spike in fruit consumption.

It also is basic economics that if apples cost less than chips or cookies, people will buy them. Schools that require cash for desserts and soda see drops in dessert and soda purchases.

Of course, Dr Wansink has many more creative ideas than just moving soda machines. After years of studying The ways that the names of foods change the way that people perceive them, he has made an art out of titling dishes. As much as we think we are immune to such things, his studies show that calling a salad a “Melange of Baby Greens with Roasted Tomato-Pistachio Vinaigrette and Aged Gouda Curls” will make it worth more than a “Side Salad with Cheese.”

Turning that method toward children takes a little creativity. Younger children might go for Popeye’s Super Spinach or X-Ray vision carrots, while older ones could be into something referring to the Twilight movies or LOL cats. (obviously I am terribly out of touch.)

The Smarter Lunchrooms program is not just a pamphlet, either. Schools can enroll in the program and receive expert help in reconfiguring their lunchroom, and in return, are asked to track the results. It’s interactive, too, with the schools, parents and participants giving feedback, all of which feeds into the study of retail food psychology.

So if your kids are in a school lunch program, you would help them and future children by getting your school involved with Smarter Lunchrooms.

They might even get excited about x-ray carrots.