Behavioral Economics and School Lunches

[graphic of people being served at a cafeteria]

When a human is unhappy with the way things are going, three courses of action are possible: change other people (usually frustratingly futile), change oneself (difficult to varying degrees), or change the environment. Sometimes modifying the environment can be astonishingly effective, as a science called behavioral economics has shown when applied to school lunches.

School districts across the country are caught between a rock and a hard place. The meals they provide have to meet nutritional standards, which often means spending more money. If the food is so unfamiliar that kids don’t even want to try it, or if they try it and don’t like it, the school loses money. When schools have to discontinue the popular items that kids are willing to pay for, they lose even more money. But David R. Just and Brian Wansink, writing for Choices magazine, explain how this problem can be managed:

By using tools that will both increase the sales of more nutritional foods and decrease the sales of less nutritional foods, behavioral tools can achieve nutritional goals while having a minimal impact on the bottom line.

What tools are they talking about? Simple rearrangement, for one. The authors describe a Minnesota school where kids waiting to pay for their lunches had ample leisure time to contemplate an array of chips, snacks, and desserts. Placing such attractive nuisances at the checkout station is a familiar tactic used by grocery stores to encourage impulse buying. But in a school cafeteria setting, it is inappropriate and counterproductive. So Just and Wansink moved the junk food and placed fruit in that location, which increased not only the amount of fruit the kids bought, but the amount of it they actually ate.

At a middle school in New York state, moving the salad bar had a noticeable effect on the popularity of salads, and not just because of the novelty. Salad sales remained strong. Changing the physical environment can also help to discourage the consumption of high-calorie, low-nutrition items. Research has shown that keeping the lid of an ice cream freezer closed can cut ice cream sales to students in half.

The basics

This method of helping kids develop good eating habits employs two simple principles: reactance and self-attribution. Reactance stems from a natural resentment against coercion, inspiring a spirit of rebellion that does not bode well for long-term behavioral change. Sure, we can stop kids from eating cookies at lunch by refusing to offer them, but the heavy-handed approach only guarantees the consumption of more cookies after school. It’s more effective in the long run to tuck the cookie machine away in a lightly trafficked area of the building. If soda vending machines have to be present, they too should be exiled to an out-of-the-way spot.

Self-attribution is the dignity of making one’s own decisions, and parenting courses emphasize its importance even with very young children. “Do you want some corn for supper?” might be met with resistance. “Which would you rather have — corn or peas?” is a question that can produce amazing results. The child is so jazzed about having a choice, and making a choice, that the reality of eating a vegetable is of secondary importance. It works for older kids, too. When a school rule requires a kid to put a vegetable on the plate, only about a third of those vegetable servings actually get eaten. When there are two or more choices of vegetable, the likelihood of actual consumption increases. The authors write:

[T]he object of using behavioral economics in school lunch rooms is to guide choices in a way that is subtle enough that children are unaware of the mechanism. These subtle changes often have the advantage of being relatively cheap and easy to implement…. To preserve choice, we will necessarily have to allow some individuals to purchase items that are less nutritious. But we can make these choices less convenient or less visible.

Find out more about these theories and their implementation at SmarterLunchrooms.org.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Smarter Lunchrooms: Using Behavioral Economics to Improve Meal Selection,” ChoicesMagazine.org, undated
Image by Joe McKendry

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