For decades, school administrators have struggled and failed to improve student lunches. This (slightly mad) professor offers a different approach: tricking kids into eating well. It's Working.
Author Edward Lewine
CHARLENE O’CONNOR HAD A FRUIT PROBLEM. O’Connor is the school lunch manager for the public schools in Plattsburgh, New York, near the Canadian border. About a year ago, she was under pressure from parents, the media and school administrators to get her 2,000 students to eat more fresh fruit. Unfortunately, the kids seemed to prefer the canned fruit in syrup. “It’s not like we weren’t offering apples, oranges and pears,” O’Connor says. “They just weren’t taking them.”
Enter Brian Wansink, a Cornell University professor who studies human eating behavior. Wansink spent a week in Plattsburgh at the invitation of the New York board of health and suggested two simple fixes: Place the fruit in attractive bowls by the cash register, and create signs urging kids to eat it. O’Connor was skeptical. “It sounded too easy,” she says. “If they weren’t going to take fruit in the middle of the cafeteria line, why would they take it at the end?” Still, she was willing to give it a shot, and in January 2010 she put Wansink’s suggestions into practice. Two months later, in March, she sold more than 1,000 pieces of fruit—four times what the school had sold the previous December. O’Connor was stunned. (She was also out of fruit.) Parents wrote emails saying their kids were raving about fruit in the cafeteria. Wansink’s advice had altered O’Connor’s ideas about feeding children, a job she’d done for two decades. “We made a few simple changes in the lunchroom for less than a thousand dollars,” O’Connor says, “and we changed the way these kids eat.”
Changing the way kids eat is a matter of national concern these days. Childhood obesity has tripled in the U.S. since 1980, and high-calorie school lunches are generally acknowledged to be part of the problem. While schools and nutritional advocates have been trying to get people to eat better for years, few have succeeded, and Wansink thinks he knows why. Traditional weight-loss measures in which people deny themselves fattening foods, governmental attempts to tax or ban foods, and well-meaning efforts by people like chef Jamie Oliver to employ reason to get people to eat better create resistance.
“When people feel forced to do something against their will,” he says, “they rebel.”
So what’s the answer? Basically, trick them. Wansink has devised dozens of simple and inexpensive ways to get kids to do what they ought to be doing anyway. They’re part of a program he calls the Smarter Lunchrooms Initiative, and the U.S. government has kicked in $1 million to help him spread the word. His approach is less about convincing or educating, and more a matter of engineering. “I’m a behavioral engineer,” he says. “We engineer solutions to behavioral problems.”
OVER A PLATE OF EGGS AND bacon (he’s unabashedly a meat, potatoes and dessert guy), Wansink recounts the moment he became obsessed with food. During his childhood in Sioux City, Iowa, his father was laid off, and for a while the family struggled to put food on the table. From then on, Wansink made a point of taking jobs that included free food as a perk. One of these was selling vegetables door to door, which he found fascinating. “I wanted to know why people would buy vegetables one day and not the other,” he says. Years later, after a somewhat tortured educational path—he nearly failed out of his Stanford Ph.D. program—he made digging into those choices his life’s work.
Now 50, Wansink is a leading figure in the overlapping fields of consumer behavior and behavioral economics—a pursuit loosely defined as the study of how and why people make purchases. In addition to the federal grant money he just received to seed his lunchroom campaign, he’s got his own research lab and a name-chair professorship at Cornell; he’s the author of dozens of scholarly articles as well as the best-selling book Mindless Eating, which has been translated into more than 20 languages; and from 2007 to 2009 he was executive director of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. “If you listed the people having an impact in this field, he is in the top tier,” says Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.
Tall, blond and perpetually in motion, Wansink is a showman with a goofy streak. He laughs uproariously at the slightest provocation, speaks in the exaggerated tones of someone hosting a children’s television show, and has a flair for offbeat research studies that attract media attention. His greatest hits include analyzing the growth in portion sizes in paintings of the Last Supper, studying how the shape of glasses affects the pours of Philadelphia bartenders, and using automatically refilling bowls of soup to prove that people will continue eating as long as there is food in front of them.
Through his research, Wansink has come to believe that the average person makes around 250 eating decisions a day, and most of those are unconscious—“mindless”—decisions triggered by his or her environment. Factors that nudge people to eat more include sitting in front of the television, oversize bowls and displays of fattening snacks by cash registers. The key, therefore, is to alter the environment to encourage people to eat less and better, while thinking it was their idea. In other words: “You want your kid to eat carrots?” he says. “Then give her a choice between carrots and celery. If you just offer carrots she’ll feel that you’re forcing a vegetable on her. If you offer carrots and celery, she’ll pick carrots and think it was her idea.”
“People say, ‘You are tricking people, and that’s manipulative!’” he says. “But the truth is any eating environment is manipulative in that it will lead you to eat a certain way. So let’s create environments that nudge people to do the right thing.”
UNTIL NOW THERE HAVE BEEN two major stumbling blocks in the way of people pushing for better food in cafeterias. First, eating better isn’t exactly a preadolescent priority, so the kids aren’t much help. Second, healthier food is more expensive and less popular, making it less profitable for cash-strapped schools that need to at least break even on their lunch programs. So the question is how to create a lunch program that is both healthy and popular enough to be sustainable. It’s daunting, but Wansink believes it’s doable. His recommendations are rooted in two decades of research by him and other scientists and have been tested in labs and schools for years. They boil down to the following four concepts:
Placement is key. By placing healthful foods like broccoli at the beginning of the cafeteria line, you can increase sales by 10 to 15 percent. Placing fresh fruit by end of the line—a choke point usually reserved for impulse buys like cookies—can increase fruit sales by 70 percent.
Marketing and advertising work. Often this is as simple as giving an item a snazzy name. For example, renaming zucchini something like “Fresh spring zucchini,” can improve sales by more than 25 percent. When cafeteria workers ask kids, “Do you want a salad,” sales can increase by a third.
Never underestimate the power of convenience. Moving the salad bar away from the wall and into the path of kids walking through the lunch line can triple salad sales. Keeping chocolate milk behind the plain milk increases sales of plain milk. When students don’t use trays they consume 21 percent less fruits and vegetables (which are mostly hard-to-carry side dishes). Making kids pay cash for cookies, rather than charge them on their prepaid meal cards can lead to a 55 percent reduction in sales of cookies and an uptick in fruit sales.
Finally, look out for visual cues. When ice cream is hidden under an opaque freezer lid, sales go down. When fruit is displayed in attractive bowls, sales can more than double. Reducing cereal bowl size to 14 ounces from 18 ounces can lead to a 24 percent reduction in the average serving at breakfast.
In January, Wansink and his team moved into the new Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs, where he will run his school lunch campaign. He’s hired Christine Wallace, the award-winning the former director of nutrition for the Corning City School District, to take his ideas and research and help package them into a monthly newsletter for lunchroom administrators around the country. Each year going forward, Wansink says, his center will focus on promoting two lunchroom changes that will cost less than $50 to implement, and try to get schools to adopt those two changes, through his website, newsletter and speaking engagements.
“This year we’d like to see ten- thousand schools put fruit in nice bowls and add descriptive labels for healthy foods,” says Wansink, who in the short time since he got started has already had more than 1,400 American schools express interest in the program.
“We’re not measuring success by how many people hear about this. We’re measuring success by the number of schools that make these two changes and report their sales to us.”
Then he’s off. It’s time for dinner.
EDWARD LEWINE, a Hemispheres contributing writer, is a poster boy for Brian Wansink’s theories about mindless overeating.
TYPICAL SCHOOL LUNCHES FROM AROUND THE GLOBE
Lechón kawali (fried pork and boiled processed meat), liver sauce and rice.
Potatoes, cabbage, beans, lingonberry juice and a cracker.
Baked potato, corn, carrots, cabbage, bread and fruit salad.
Beans, assorted vegetables, cabbage and rice.
Bread, watermelon, noodles, egg, bacon, vegetables, soup and milk.