Oct. 12, 2010

New center, with $1 million grant, aims to make school lunchrooms smarter

Even small, inexpensive changes to a school lunchroom layout can make a huge difference in getting students to make better, more nutritional choices, Cornell researchers have found.

With information from such studies -- and a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- the new Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs (to be known as BEN) will allow Cornell researchers to offer such expertise nationwide. BEN also will be a hub for psychological and economic research connected to childhood nutrition.

Schools can encourage students into healthier eating by harnessing subtle influences on behavior, say center co-directors Brian Wansink and David Just, both faculty members in Cornell's Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

The grant was announced in a lively school lunchroom at Ithaca's Beverly J. Martin Elementary School. During an Oct. 12 press conference, Wansink and Just explained the goals of the center and introduced Chris Wallace, former director of nutrition at the Corning City School District, who has been hired to help the center scale up national outreach efforts.

"We're taking some of the best researchers in the nation and pairing them with schools to figure out new, cool ways to get people to eat healthier," Wansink said.

Using the principles of behavioral economics, Just explained, the center will help disseminate information on how schools can creatively "nudge" -- not force -- students to eat healthier. Changes they promote range from moving fruits and vegetables into more attractive locations, to moving chocolate milk behind regular milk to make it just a little harder to reach.

In pilot studies, one school increased consumption of salads by close to 300 percent by simply moving their salad bar near a natural bottleneck in the checkout line. Another school increased fruit sales by 105 percent by moving tfruit from stainless steel bins into a well-lit and attractive basket.

In addition to honing and implementing what has been learned from four years of study, BEN will offer competitive grants ranging from $5,000 to $40,000 for graduate students and junior faculty examining issues related to behavioral economics, children and food assistance programs. BEN will sponsor workshops for behavioral economists and experts in nutrition and policy and will disseminate the research t. One website will be dedicated to provide information for school cafeteria administrators.

"We want to stimulate research that schools can actually use," said Wansink, the John Dyson Professor of Marketing, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think."

Research shows that people are disproportionately more likely to grab the first and last things in line -- the first because they are hungry, and the last because they are still hungry and don't want to go back for something else.

"By strategically placing healthy food at both the beginning and end of school lunch lines, more children choose them," Wansink said.

And, like most of the researchers' suggestions, the changes do not cost anything to implement, Just said.

Appealing to rational thought with long-term health scenarios doesn't work for children, Just said, and schools that have tried charging more for unhealthy food have found that children generally don't respond to prices. Likewise, subsidizing the cost of fruit can increase uptake by around 20 percent, whereas simply placing it in an attractive bowl on a well-lit counter in one school drove sales up 58 percent, Just said.

"We're not eliminating choice," Just said. "It's pushing things where we can and not trying to do the impossible."

Stacey Shackford is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Anne Ju contributed to this article.