In January 2012, the United States Department of Agriculture passed a series of regulations designed to make school lunches more nutritious, which included requiring schools to increase whole grain offerings and making students select either a fruit or vegetable with their purchased lunch. However, children cannot be forced to eat these healthier lunches. In a new study scheduled for publication in The Journal of Pediatrics, researchers determined that small, inexpensive changes to school cafeterias influenced the choice and consumption of healthier foods.
Andrew S. Hanks, PhD, and colleagues from the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs (B.E.N. Center) studied the effects of multiple small interventions, called the smarter lunchroom makeover, in the cafeterias of two junior-senior high schools (grades 7-12) in western New York. In the lunchroom, changes were implemented to improve the convenience and attractiveness of fruits and vegetables (e.g., fresh fruit next to the cash register in nice bowls or tiered stands) and make the selection of fruits and vegetables seem standard through verbal cues from cafeteria staff (e.g., "Would you like to try an apple?"). The smarter lunchroom makeover took no more than 3 hours in one afternoon and cost less than $50 to implement. These types of changes are applications of the behavioral science principle termed "libertarian paternalism," which promotes influencing choice through behavioral cues, while preserving choices.