The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced on Tuesday a $2 million initiative to help food behavior scientists find new ways to use psychology to fight childhood obesity and improve the federal school lunch program.
"Findings from this emerging field of research — behavioral economics — could lead to significant improvements in the diets of millions of children across America," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement.
“Across the nation, many schools are already taking steps to provide students with healthier meals and the nutrition knowledge to make healthier choices. However, it is well recognized that understanding the value of a healthy diet does not always translate into healthy choices.”
Previous studies have shown that even subtle changes, such as displaying fruits and vegetables in pretty baskets instead of steel bins, or having a cash-only policy for desserts, can help children make healthier school lunch choices. But more research is needed, Vilsack said.
“Research has shown that good intentions may not be enough: when choosing what or how much to eat, we may be unconsciously influenced by how offers are framed, by various incentives, and by such factors as visual cues.”
“The emerging field of behavioral economics draws on research from the fields of economics and social psychology to better understand behavior. This research can suggest practical, cost-effective ways that the school environment can better support healthful choices.”
About one-third of U.S. children are classified as overweight or obese. Bans on soda and junk food have backfired in some places, and some students have entirely abandoned school meal programs that tried to force them to consume healthier foods.
The Associated Press (AP) cited one school district that put fruit on every lunch tray, only to find most of it discarded in the trash.
These schools are now looking for a new approach, betting that children may be more likely to eat healthier foods if they feel it is something they have selected for themselves.
"It's not nutrition till it's eaten," USDA researcher Joanne Guthrie told AP.
Part of the USDA’s initiative will establish a child nutrition center at Cornell University, which has long conducted this type of research.
Cornell researchers have already found that some measures, such as keeping ice cream in freezers without a glass display top, improve the food choices of children. Other measures, such as moving salad bars next to checkout registers, also work well.
Last year, the USDA sought advice from the Institute of Medicine on how to improve its school lunch and breakfast programs, which provide free or subsidized meals each day to more than 31 million U.S. schoolchildren.
The Institute advised offering more fruit, vegetables and whole grains, while limiting fat, salt and calories. However, it was clear this wouldn't work without the children first accepting these healthier foods, Guthrie told AP.
"We can't just say we're going to change the menu and all of our problems will be solved," she explained.
The USDA requested proposals from researchers on how to get kids to actually select and eat the healthier foods.
The agency selected Cornell scientists Brian Wansink and David Just, who will receive $1 million to establish the Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
The remaining $1 million will fund 14 other research projects in Connecticut, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, the USDA said.
Cornell will focus on developing "smart lunchrooms" that guide children to make good food choices even when faced with more tempting ones.
"We're not taking things away from kids," said Wansink, a prominent food science researcher known for his studies on the depiction of food in paintings of the Last Supper.
"It's making the better choice the easier, more convenient choice,” he told AP.
Christine Wallace, food service director for the Corning City School District near Cornell University, met Wansink a few years ago and invited him to use her fourteen schools as a laboratory.
"We tend to look at what we're offering and to make sure it's well prepared and in the correct portion size, and not the psychology of it. We're just not trained that way," Wallace told the AP.
She recounted a time when some Corning schools had express lines for a la carte products such as snacks and ice cream, in an attempt to reduce bottlenecks caused by full tray lunches that took longer to ring up.
The unintended results were disastrous.
"We were making it very convenient for them to quickly go through the line and get a bunch of less nutritious items," she said.
After reviewing studies conducted by Wansink, the elementary schools renamed some of their
healthier foods with names such as "x-ray vision carrots" and "lean, mean green beans", and saw consumption increase.
Cafeteria workers also began changing how they interacted with the children, asking "would you rather have green beans or carrots today?" instead of waiting for a child to specifically request them.
They also found that simply asking a child whether they wanted a salad with their lunch during pizza day raised salad consumption 30 percent, Wansink said. USDA