School Nutrition Association June/July 2012 : Page 60
Raise Your Cafeteria’s BY APPLYING A LITTLE BEHAVIORAL PSYCHOLOGY, YOU CAN TEACH KIDS TO MAKE SMARTER, HEALTHIER FOOD CHOICES. I.Q. BY SUSAN DAVIS GRYDER W ise, old sages warned us, “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.” You might be nodding in agreement if you feel like all your efforts to teach kids the value of healthy foods are being ignored when they actually make the day’s lunch choices. It’s certainly disheartening to collect contain-ers of bright, sparkling fruit left untouched on the serving line after the last lunch period. And does it seem like it’s only the handful of student vegetarians who are taking your fresh, prepared salads? And this despite the posters, games, lessons and other creative activities you’ve tried in your efforts to convey some nutrition education. What’s it gonna take to change meal-time habits? Just imagine if you could make a few easy, low-cost/no-cost changes to your cafeteria serving line and, as if by magic, your student customers begin to make healthier choices. That’s right—no major menu changes, no installation of expensive equipment, no pricey consultants—just some small changes that remarkably result in children increasing their daily consumption of nutritious foods, while foregoing less-healthy options. That certainly would be worth at least trying , right? Cornell University professors Brian Wansink, PhD, and David Just, PhD, are encouraging school nutrition professionals to do just that. Through the application of some simple truths about various factors that in ﬂ uence eating behaviors, the two researchers believe that any school in the country can build a “Smarter Lunchroom.” Intrigued to learn about their revolutionary campaign? Let’s ﬁ nd out more. 60 School Nutrıtıon • JUNE/JULY 2012
Raise Your Cafeteria’s IQ
Susan Davis Gryder
■ You can encourage nutritious eating choices without sacrificing revenue or incurring significant expenses.
■ Customers want what they can see. Draw attention toward healthier items and away from less-nutritious choices.
■ Simple changes that emphasize visibility and convenience can nudge children in the right direction.
BY APPLYING A LITTLE BEHAVIORAL PSYCHOLOGY, YOU CAN TEACH KIDS TO MAKE SMARTER, HEALTHIER FOOD CHOICES.
Wise, old sages warned us, “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.” You might be nodding in agreement if you feel like all your efforts to teach kids the value of healthy foods are being ignored when they actually make the day’s lunch choices. It’s certainly disheartening to collect containers of bright, sparkling fruit left untouched on the serving line after the last lunch period. And does it seem like it’s only the handful of student vegetarians who are taking your fresh, prepared salads? And this despite the posters, games, lessons and other creative activities you’ve tried in your efforts to convey some nutrition education. What’s it gonna take to change mealtime habits?
Just imagine if you could make a few easy, low-cost/no-cost changes to your cafeteria serving line and, as if by magic, your student customers begin to make healthier choices. That’s right—no major menu changes, no installation of expensive equipment, no pricey consultants—just some small changes that remarkably result in children increasing their daily consumption of nutritious foods, while foregoing less-healthy options. That certainly would be worth at least trying , right?
Cornell University professors Brian Wansink, PhD, and David Just, PhD, are encouraging school nutrition professionals to do just that. Through the application of some simple truths about various factors that influence eating behaviors, the two researchers believe that any school in the country can build a “Smarter Lunchroom.” Intrigued to learn about their revolutionary campaign? Let’s find out more.
Perception vs. Reality
As professors in Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Wansink and Just were interested in researching the influential factors at play when consumers make choices about what—and how much—to eat. A variety of tests, including controlled psychological experiments in the lab, field studies, surveys and hidden cameras, revealed some interesting results.
■ In one study, moviegoers were found to eat more popcorn when it was served in an extra-large container than when it was served in a smaller tub. And this was true whether the popcorn was freshly made or several days old and stale! The study participants, whose free popcorn was weighed before and after the movie, didn’t think they’d consumed as much as they had. But the evidence proved that subjects ate 45% more fresh popcorn when eating from the extra-large containers and consumed 34% more stale popcorn in the same tubs.
■ A “bottomless soup bowl” study featured a specially designed bowl that used a pressure-fed tube that slowly and imperceptibly refilled the soup as it was consumed. Test subjects with the bottomless bowl ate 73% more soup than those with regular bowls, but didn’t perceive that they’d consumed more than a single bowl’s worth of soup. The results demonstrate how we may rely on empty plates/ bowls as a visual cue to stop eating.
■ Another study affirmed what every good marketer already knows: Descriptive language can influence a person’s perception of taste. When ordinary food was made to sound extraordinary (a fish dish was called “succulent” and a conventional chocolate cake was presented as “Belgian Black Forest Cake”), consumers reported higher satisfaction and better taste with the item, rather than expressing disappointment that it didn’t live up to the description.
These and other studies demonstrate that most of us are not the most reliable judges of how much we eat; we’re not wholly governed by feeling “full,” since we tend to eat more when food is served in larger containers or plates. In addition, we are susceptible to marketing and promotional language, not just at the point of choice, but also in our overall satisfaction with the choice.
From Lab to Lunchroom
While this is not necessarily groundbreaking research (other studies have examined similar eating behaviors and influences, with the results being used to support everything from food package design to effective weight-loss approaches), putting such behavioral findings into the context of school foodservice management is new. Wansink, Just and their colleagues at Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab believe that understanding and applying the factors that influence eating behaviors can be used to make one of the most important places where nutritional choices are offered much more effective: the school cafeteria. And in 2010, the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs (the BEN Center) was established.
Soon after it was founded, the BEN Center received a request for help from the New York State Department of Health, which wanted to know how much it would need to subsidize the offering of fresh fruit in school cafeterias to increase whole fruit selection by 5%. BEN’s surprising response: Don’t subsidize it! Instead, the BEN Center team recommended that the fruit be displayed in a prominent, well-lit position, in an attractive bowl, rather than a “drab, metal bin.” As a result of this simple and virtually cost-free change, whole fruit selection at a test school increased more than 100%, staying at that level for the rest of the semester. And, thus, the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement was born.
The campaign has a simple mission: Help schools encourage nutritious eating choices without sacrificing revenue, incurring significant expenses or affecting overall program participation. The BEN Center offers suggestions for simple serving area changes that cost less than $50, and schools that have made the adjustments have enjoyed some fairly amazing results.
One thing the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement doesn’t try to do is to restrict food choices or compel students to eat only the healthiest options. “It’s not our goal to restrict food choice or eliminate favorites,” Wansink explains. “It’s all about incremental changes.” In a The New York Times Op-Ed illustration of a smarter lunch line, authored by Wansink, Just and artist Joe McKendry, they noted that there is no need for “draconian” measures. “Children and teenagers resist heavy-handed nutritional policies—and the food that is associated with the heavy hand,” they wrote. “No food is nutritious, after all, until it is actually eaten.”
Instead, the BEN Center team offers a few simple rules of thumb for promoting healthy choices in the cafeteria and helping to nudge students toward making better choices on their own—similar, of course, to the goals of traditional nutrition education!
■ Emphasize the visual aspects of what you’re serving: Make it appetizing!
■ To understand how your students experience your cafeteria, always be thinking, “What would McDonald’s do?” For example, the fastfood giant ensures that its restaurants are well-lit, service is streamlined and POS signage is always enticing. McDonald’s wants to make it easy and appealing for customers to make the ordering choices the company wants them to make. You should—and can—do the same.
■ Consumer research has found that most customers tend to think the best comes first and that they tend to make decisions sequentially. Make nutritious foods the first items available on the serving lines.
■ Customers want what they can see. Pay attention to lighting and displays, using this insight to draw attention toward healthier items and away from less-nutritious choices.
■ Upsell healthy items. Cafeteria serving staff or cashiers should make a point to verbally offer these choices to customers before they head to dining areas.
■ Create decision points: More partitions and more opportunities to make choices can result in more sales and selections of targeted items. For example, a “healthy express line” with its own cashier station offers students multiple incentives.
■ Don’t eliminate the indulgences! You might face mutiny if you completely do away with treats. Just make them a little bit harder for kids to select.
School nutrition managers, supervisors and directors can put these rules into context through the application of some very simple cafeteria modifications. From the rearrangement of existing menu items to the targeted placement of signage, the BEN Center team offers a variety of specific suggestions to get you started. Check these out on page 64.
Every Journey Starts With a Step You’ll need to evaluate your space constraints for some of the steps suggested on page 64. And it’s important to recognize that certain changes will have more resonance with younger children, while others may be more effective with older students (especially those who have become jadedly resistant to conventional nutrition education approaches). Plus, don’t be discouraged if your adaptations only change the habits of some of the kids, some of the time. Taken in combination and over time, the impact can be quite significant.
Consider some of the testimonials posted by school nutrition professionals to the Smarter Lunchrooms website. “The BEN Center lunchroom makeover ideas really got me thinking—little changes really affect how kids look at things and how they enjoy their meals and interact with the staff,” wrote Sheila Hoyt, cook/ manager for Horseheads (N.Y.) Intermediate School and Middle School. “I decided to act. We did half a dozen changes from the BEN Center presentation, plus a few we came up with on our own. The kids were really excited, saying, ‘This is really cool’ and ‘Can you do this every day?’… You guys really opened my eyes and got me going.”
Dave Kabel, RD, a regional foodservice director overseeing 16 New York school districts, wrote, “We have participated in numerous interventions in our cafeterias and watched students begin to make better choices. Our partnership with the BEN Center helps us feel that we have a fighting chance to make a difference in the lives of our students.”
Such simple changes can be initiated by a cafeteria site manager. You don’t need to wait for your director to bring the idea to you. However, you should get buy-in from the director and other powers that be. Even if your changes won’t result in any extra expenses, it’s worthwhile to take the time to explain to stakeholders what you are doing and what you expect to see as an outcome. The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement website (www.smarterlunch rooms.org) features ready-made Power- Point presentations and other tools to help educate school administrators, boards of education and parents about the potential value behind such simple changes.
Next, convene a small group to brainstorm a list of changes you can implement. Call upon the creativity and fresh ideas of your cafeteria team, as well as a few supportive teachers and parents. If you have a student advisory council, this could be a project to discuss with them. (Developing creative names for menu items is a particularly appropriate activity to do with a representative group of students.) The bottom line is to look for solutions that emphasize visibility and convenience.
Keep your goals achievable by not biting off more than you can chew. Start with a manageable number of changes (Wansink recommends 12) and build on your success over time throughout the school year. Starting with just one or two changes might not demonstrate the potential of the cumulative effect that several of these easy steps can make in combination. Remember, many of Smarter Lunchrooms’ changes can be implemented literally overnight, but some could take a little time, especially those that involve moving serving equipment or training staff.
Check back periodically with the Smarter Lunchrooms website. You will find additional small steps and interventions for meeting common objectives. Plus, check out instruction videos and see a cafeteria makeover in action. Other case studies, research and easy-to-implement ideas are expected to be added as available. Are you ready to raise your cafeteria’s I.Q. with this fresh, simple, no-risk approach to nutrition education and marketing? A new school year awaits— give it a try and see what happens!
SIMPLE STEPS, BIG CHANGES
1. Researchers find that the first item in a serving line is more likely to be chosen than those further along the line. In addition, students often complain about long lunch lines. So, make sure that the first, most prominent and most convenient item available to your students is your most nutritious entrée choice.
2. Offer a variety of nutritious choices every day. If kids can select between carrots or celery, for example, it will increase the chance that they will select at least one of them!
3. Position containers of chocolate and other flavored milk varieties behind the plain milk, where it’s just a bit harder to reach. Even a 6-in. reach was enough to make 20% of children in one study opt for the easier-to-access plain milk. 4. Change the ratio of flavored to plain milk choices. Offer a greater quantity of plain milk cartons and a fewer number of the flavored variety.
5. Keep ice cream in a freezer with a closed, opaque top instead of a clear window. (Don’t have the right equipment? Just cover the see-through panels with paper.) Require customers to open the lid or door to see what’s offered.
6. In merchandisers and display cases, position the most nutritious items at customer eye-level, moving less-healthy items higher, lower or to the back.
7. Train cashiers and/or servers to upsell nutritious items with a simple prompt. For example, ask each child if he or she wants a salad to accompany the meal. BEN Center researchers found that salad sales increased by as much as 50% when kids were specifically asked this question. While many staff already do such prompts to ensure a student has been offered all components of a reimbursable meal, this technique can be applied to any nutritious item, including those offered a la carte.
8. Whole fruit may have greater appeal to secondary students on the go, but it can be intimidating to youngsters who don’t have the strong teeth or manual dexterity to bite an apple or peel an orange rind. You can make fruit choices more convenient—and fun—by cutting it. A sectionizer is a relatively inexpensive purchase that can pay for itself quickly in greater consumption.
9. Do you offer a salad bar? Take a look at where it is located. Is it against a wall? BEN’s research findings show that if you can move it to the center of the serving area, within a few weeks you might increase daily salad sales by as much as 200%!
10. Create a quick “Healthy Checkout” or “Healthy Grab ‘n’ Go” line that doesn’t offer desserts and chips, but features only healthy options, including pre-assembled reimbursable meal components in convenient grab bags or packages. This type of dedicated serving line or point-ofsale site can double the sales of healthy sandwiches and salads.
11. When serving nutritious entrées and sides, make sure to give them compelling, attractive names and/or descriptions, like X-Ray Vision Carrots, Power Peas and Broccoli Bites. But be sure that the names you create are age appropriate! Older students are less likely to respond to fun names, but they will be attracted to descriptive terms, like “spicy,” “fresh” and “wild.”
12. Are all the components to make a reimbursable meal available at every location where students can buy food items? Is it easier for a student to purchase reimbursable meal components than it is for them to buy competitive foods? Take advantage of every point of interaction.
13. Establish a “Cash for Cookies” policy. If your cafeteria uses a prepay account system for all meal transactions, consider making an adjustment so that less-healthy a la carte items must be paid for in cash. This requirement can prompt many students to opt for healthier treats more frequently.
14. Make healthy options available at multiple points of interaction—especially at log-jam areas: the start of the serving line, on a salad bar, on a snack rack, beside the register. Less-nutritious options should be less available.
15. Make unhealthy treats available only by request. Place snack racks behind the serving counter so that students must ask for the items, rather than being able to grab them.
16. Give nutritious a la carte items a price advantage. Even 5 to 10 cents can make a big difference, says the BEN Center. Be sure to advertise the cost difference.
17. Rather than quantity-based item discounts, bundle indulgent snacks with healthy partner foods. For example, you can offer a one-cookie-one-milk discount.
18. Use of signage—“Last Chance for Fruit!” or “Try Me!” or “Did You Grab Some Fruit for Later?”—can help to draw attention to healthy options. Incorporate your school’s mascot to personalize the message. Other real or fictional heroes also can be applied for good role-modeling. (A recent Cornell study found that offering two choices— one nutritious, the other less so—and priming children by asking “Which food would Batman eat?” led kids to make the better choice.) Don’t over-use the word “healthy,” however, as it tends to backfire with this target market.
Susan Davis Gryder is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Md. School Nutrition Editor Patricia Fitzgerald contributed to this story. Photography by pixdelux, TonySoh and MarsBars/istockphoto.com.
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