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The freakonomics of school lunch


Changing what kids eat could be easier and simpler than we think. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

The easy answer to why it’s hard to improve school lunch is money. The hard answer is, of course, much more complicated.

Yes, schools need more money to buy more fruits and vegetables and to pay staff to replace processed foods with meals made from scratch. But they also need students to want to eat more healthful foods. After all, if a school invests in fresh foods and the kids all head to McDonald's, nobody wins. (Well, except McDonald's.)

A new paper published in Choices Magazine, a publication of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, demonstrates how a close study of behavioral economics could improve what students eat. Better, it won’t cost most school districts a penny.

For the uninitiated, behavioral economics looks at how perception and thought processes affect purchasing decisions. (It's what made Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, authors of the best-seller "Freakonomics," famous.)

When it comes to the lunchroom, two principles are at work. The first is “reactance,” the way in which students rebel when they are coerced into doing something. So, for example, schools that eliminate cookies and cakes at lunch may unintentionally encourage students to head for a convenience store after school to get their sugar fix.

The second is "self-attribution," which is a fancy way of saying that when people believe they are making their own choices, they are happier with the outcome. In other words, when students think they are choosing to eat carrots, they like them better and are more likely to choose them outside the lunchroom as well.

Authors Brian Wansink, who also wrote the seminal book "Mindless Eating," and David Just offer several fascinating examples of such trends at work. Take those carrots. Most schools require students to choose a vegetable as part of their school meal. But only 35 percent of the students actually consume them, resulting in a huge amount of waste. Indeed, the authors say, requiring students to take a vegetable has no impact on whether they eat them.

In an experiment at Cornell, the authors told one group of 120 junior high school students that they must eat carrots. Another group of 120 were given a choice of carrots or celery. Of those required, 69 percent ate the carrots, while 91 percent of those who were given a choice and chose carrots ate theirs.

Food placement also can drastically affect what students choose to eat. At one Minnesota school, chips, granola bars and desserts were available by the cash register, where there was often a long wait. As a result, many students picked up the snacks on impulse. When the school replaced the snacks with fresh fruit near the cash register, sales patterns changed. More students bought fruit, fewer bought the snacks. The school’s total revenue remained about the same.

Of all the tactics studied, one seemed to have the most potential: requiring students to pay cash for desserts. In many schools, students buy food with a debit card, paid for by their parents. “We don’t take their desserts away. We just say, ‘If you want that cookie bad enough, you can pay cash for it,’ ” the authors write.

Where students had to pay cash for sweets, they made different choices. Sales of fresh fruit and fresh vegetables rose about 10 percent.

“A seemingly modest adjustment to the existing school lunch payment systems could have a sizable influence on food choice,” the authors found. “Over the years, this could significantly impact the weight and health of children.”

Smarter lunchrooms alone cannot remake the way students eat at school, the authors admit. But they do provide creative and inexpensive ways to help students eat well. And that's what the debate over how to fix school lunch needs.

More ideas and studies are available at a new Web site, SmarterLunchrooms.org.

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  November 6, 2009; 2:30 PM ET
Categories:  Food Politics  | Tags: Jane Black, nutrition, school lunch  
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Comments

This is brilliant, yet so simple -- a true "D'oh!" moment.

If you think about it, the food marketers employ many many highly-educated, highly-paid people, who have done many many studies and other market research, all for the purpose of figuring out what specific arrangement, display, location, color, size, etc. will be most likely to entice Shopper A to choose Product X. One or two of those people, with that kind of training and knowledge, working for the schools instead of Frito-Lay, could have a huge impact.

Although the "carrots or celery" example makes me laugh. What parent of a 2-yr-old HASN'T figured out that asking "do you want your blue shirt or your red shirt?" is WAY more effective than just asking "what would you like to wear?"? And yet, again, we still haven't figured out to extrapolate that to the lunch line.

Posted by: laura33 | November 6, 2009 3:58 PM | Report abuse

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