The Smarter Lunchrooms Sphere of Influence

This post follows “Who Hates Online Activism?” in chronicling the disappointing history of Brian Wansink, Ph.D., a man entrusted by the U.S. government to psychologically manipulate the behavior of children and teenagers in school cafeterias, and influence them to choose healthful foods that do not promote obesity.

No fault is to be found in any of this… if the Smarter Lunchrooms theories actually play out. Do they? And if this very soft science knows what it’s talking about. Does it? Through the efforts of Bettina Elias Siegel, the public has learned about a complicated and perhaps shady situation.

Siegel notes that members of the School Nutrition Association receive regular newsletters whose contents include hints on how to inspire better eating habits at school meals. Who could be mad at that? One might wonder. Of course, for anyone who presumes to hand out tips, a problem is inherent. Saying “Try this… or this… or this…” cannot help but attract a certain amount of negative emotional fallout. Many friendly pieces of advice for parents are launched, and not all of them will land.

People are different, and so are families, kids, mothers, fathers, cultures, neighborhoods, finances, schools, and numerous other factors. No advisor or life coach can guarantee that all their helpful tips will be effective. A lot of things don’t work, and nothing works for everybody. But as any baffled and beleaguered parent will acknowledge, when something does work, it can be a life-changer.

How influential is the Smarter Lunchrooms creed?

Regarding the research from which its wisdom nuggets are mined, critics of the Smarter Lunchrooms movement have been pointing out with increasing frequency that it is, in some instances, embarrassingly threadbare. Also, despite calling itself one, Smarter Lunchrooms is not a movement — not in the sense of an innovative idea that sparks the imaginations of various interested parties who clamor to join up.

No, it’s a top-down thing, not decreed but strongly urged by the Department of Agriculture, as Siegel reminds us:

[T]he USDA has invested millions more in the program, including offering individual grants to schools to help them implement Wansink’s findings. The USDA holds Wansink’s ideas in such high esteem that his Smarter Lunchroom Initiative has even been woven into federal regulations.

This refers to the sections of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which warned local schools that the minimum expectation was for them to review the Smarter Lunchrooms materials because they are…

[…] shown to improve student participation in the school meals program while encouraging consumption of more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes, and decreasing plate waste.

Public Schools pretty much have to participate in such programs, and when they do, they are under an obligation to follow the guidelines and uphold the tenets. It’s fine to try things out, but government fiat tends to prematurely enshrine a philosophy’s ideas as the ultimate criteria for goodness, which is perhaps not such a great idea. Siegel writes,

Similarly, the USDA’s HealthierUS Schools Challenge, launched in 2010 to encourage healthier school environments, is now called “HealthierUS School Challenge: Smarter Lunchrooms,” and to qualify for bronze, silver or gold certification, schools must now demonstrate that they’re using Wansink’s techniques in at least six areas in their cafeterias.

Also, Wansink controlled the narrative around children’s school food by being director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab. The institution studies, and often influences, “how people perceive, consume, and think about food.”

(To be continued…)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “BREAKING: Can We Trust the Data Behind ‘Smarter Lunchrooms?’,”, 02/14/17
Source: “Local School Wellness Policy Implementation Under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010,”, 07/29/16
Source: “A Popular Diet-Science Lab Has Been Publishing Really Shoddy Research,”, 02/08/17
Image by Indi Samarajiva/CC BY 2.0

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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