Researchers at the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, conducting a study on behalf of the New York Department of Health, discovered that the key to getting schoolchildren to eat healthier school lunches isn't price. It's positioning and presentation.
By moving fruit from dingy silver pans in poorly lit areas to baskets illuminated by better lighting, the team prompted students to go on a fruit-buying frenzy, raising the sales of the healthy items by more than 50 percent. Other phenomenon that these food psychologists have noticed is that students who pay for their lunches with debit cards (rather than cash) tend to prefer junk food. The Lab director Brian Wansink believes that by only allowing students to pay for certain items with cards (excluding cookies, ice cream, chips, etc.), schools may be able to push students toward eating better.
These so-called "nudges" are part of a field called behavioral economics, which involves getting people to act in their best interest by playing on certain known behaviors and tendencies they exhibit.
From an article about Wansink's work in The Washington Post:
The attractions are clear. Such solutions—sometimes called "nudges"—can be low-cost. They also are flexible. Although most people think of school lunch as a monolithic federal program, lunchrooms across the more than 14,000 U.S. school districts vary, and most decisions about what and how students eat are made locally. Most important, implementing change doesn't require a vote in Congress. Though Michelle Obama has made childhood obesity her signature issue, legislation that would increase funding for school lunch and boost nutrition standards remains stalled.
To find out more about the Cornell Food and Brand Lab's behavioral work on improving school lunches, check out its Smarter Lunchrooms site.