Some schools have increased consumption of fruits and vegetables and other healthy options at practically no cost by using behavioral psychology techniques promoted by the Smarter Lunchrooms program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The USDA under secretary Kevin Concannon discussed the Smarter Lunchrooms program and school nutrition with researchers and educators during a conference call Aug. 21. He said 90% of districts are already in compliance with higher nutrition standards and that recent research by Harvard University and the Pew Charitable Trusts show plate waste is decreasing and students’ acceptance of new menus is increasing.
“We are still in the transition phase,” Concannon said, encouraging school foodservice officials to make use of online resources from the USDA-funded Cornell University Center for Behavioral Economics for Child Nutrition Programs (BEN program) to help students make healthier choices.
David Just, co-director of the BEN program, said cost-free techniques such as renaming menu items have been used in real school lunch lines to entice students to make better choices.
“Consumption went up 27% when mixed vegetables were called ‘California Blend’ and bean burritos were renamed ‘Big Bad Bean Burritos,’ ” Just said.
Just said students’ fresh fruit selections increased by 103% moving apples, bananas and oranges out from under sneeze guards and into “attractive” bowls and baskets.
One Washington state school district increased their orders for oranges by 300% by having the fruit at the beginning and end of the cafeteria line, Just said. He said that example illustrates a behavioral psychology principal that involves planting a thought and then providing students a second chance to make the right choice.
“They might think about picking up an orange at the beginning, but by the time they make the decision the line has moved them past the oranges,” Just said. By adding another basket of fruit at the end of the line the students have the opportunity to act on their decision.
Angela Stark, a middle school teacher from Lexington, Ky., who is also a National Healthy Schools Program ambassador, said she has seen Smarter Lunchrooms practices work in her school. She also said mainstream media reports of students throwing away increasing amounts of fruits and vegetables and schools suffering financially because of nutrition requirements have been exaggerated.
“We started implementing the new snack standards a year and a half ago — about 18 months before they were required — and we have had good results,” Stark said. “But we began with student taste testing to create buy-in for the kids and then had them help create new menus.”
Start said her school’s snack shop, which is open for 10 minutes after the end of classes each day, saw revenue drop about 30% in the first three months of offering healthier foods. That dropped to about 10% after the first full school year.