Behavioral Psychology Meets Merchandising At The School Cafeteria

Merchandising school lunches: image via maxschoolbux.comMerchandising school lunches: image via You can lead a kid to salad, but can you make him eat it?  That is the question the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is exploring, providing $2 million in grants to food psychology experts to explore.

The incidence of child obesity has grown to obscene proportions with 2007 state reports coming in between 23 and 44 percent of children 10 to 17 years of age meeting weight and body mass indicators for obesity.  These figures do not include youngsters that are overweight.

School projects such as putting fruit on a child's lunch tray have ended up with a lot of wasted fruit. Students have rebelled against force-fed healthy meal programs by not eating at all. So the question the USDA now faces is how to make school kids choose to eat healthy.  Food psychologists say, "Merchandising!"

With the idea in mind that kids will eat foods that they themselves choose, psychologists want to make that choice easier.  For example, having a salad bar at the end of a lunch line near the register, where students might linger.  Offering salads with lunch on 'pizza day."  Re-naming vegetables; for example, green beans might be called "mean lean beans," or carrots, "X-ray vision carrots." Of course, the way food is prepared, its tastiness, is a big factor in the merchandising of cafeteria food.

Cornell University, known for its culinary school, hosts one of the major projects funded by USDA grants.  It has already found some ideas that work to cut students' reach for the fatty foods.  They found, for example, that the salad bar near the cash register idea, mentioned above, was successful.  Additionally, a separate bar with sandwich making ingredients like sliced meats, chicken, cheese, and sliced vegetables, was successful at keeping kids from choosing the fried chicken sandwiches on the regular lunch program.

Placing ice cream and other fattening desserts in solid-door freezers and refrigerators rather than more tempting glass-covered freezers was also successful in helping kids make the right choices. (Just think of how a solid door cover would affect machine sales of candy and chips!)

Moving foods around, putting healthier choices in the front, making them more attractively positioned... all of these attempts and more will be initiated in school lunchrooms across the country during the next few years.  Hopefully, food psychologists will be as successful as gadget and clothing merchandisers in compelling children to 'buy in.'

AP via Demoines Register, Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics, Smarter Lunchrooms