The U.S. Department of Agriculture has launched a $2 million initiative to help food behavior scientists find new ways to use psychology to fight childhood obesity and improve school lunches. Ironically, the initiative doesn't necessarily rely on providing healthy meals to students as much as it aims to market healthier foods to children.
For example, the initiative might have cafeteria workers hide chocolate milk behind plain milk, increasing the speed and convenience of the balanced meal choice, hiding ice cream so it cannot be seen, and placing fruit in pretty baskets to improve its appeal. These ideas, of course, are remarkably similar to common sense, assuming the bad choices are available too.
Why Not Eliminate Less Healthy Choices?
According to USDA researcher Joanne Guthrie, changing the menu is not enough, reported the Associated Press. The concern is that when children are not making the menu choices, they leave food uneaten and it is discarded in the trash.
Jenn Savedge, author of green parenting books and blogs, concurs. She writes that bans on soda and junk food have backfired in some places. Some students have abandoned school meal programs that try to force feed healthy choices.
Why The Psychology Marketing Is Smart And Stupid.
The Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics has dozens of convincing studies that these tactics work. Suggesting fruit, they say, will increase consumption by as much as 70 percent. Closing the lid on the ice cream will decrease ice cream orders from 30 percent to 14 percent. Introducing a salad bar will increase salad choices by 21 percent.
The work being done at Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics represents everything that is right about this direction. Some of it is very smart. However, there is plenty of stupid in the mix too.
Many school systems are defeating any progress inside the lunch room because of what they do outside of the lunch room. Educators in some areas are rewarding children with candy and snacks for test performance. Many school programs — ranging from sports to computer labs — peddle candy bars and donuts to raise money. And, at my son's school, they do all that and offer smoothies every Wednesday. They are expensive, generating cash for the school and the private business making them.
In other words, there are enough unhealthy choices being dangled at the kids (and their parents for any parent who has felt obligated to buy up the remaining box of unsold candy) that any improvements in the school program may not be enough. Besides, in many cases, the only reason limiting menu choices failed is because they aimed those limitations at the wrong students.
Daily Choices Aren't The Problem As Much As School Decisions.
Telling high school students that the pizza now has whole grain crust (which even I would probably pass on) after indoctrinating them into an unhealthy lunch program for nine to twelve years should be expectedly met with resistance. The time to make dramatic changes to school lunch programs begins in elementary school, when children haven't had the experience of choosing burgers and fries or a hotdog and tater tots.
In addition to implementing better choices for the wrong students, many public schools continue to have operational problems. Children aren't only eating unhealthy foods, they are eating those foods in an unhealthy way.
“Most of the time it takes the students forever to get their lunch,” Steven Cauthron, a 15-year-old sophmore, told The Augusta Chronicle. “By the time everyone gets through the lunch line they will have 10 minutes at the most to eat their lunch. Most of the time the students usually only have about five minutes to eat their lunch because there are so many students getting a lunch.”
One of the reasons I've become critical of some modern government agencies is the increasing ability to find ways to spend money to fix problems that they helped create. Government created the school lunch problem to increase revenue (e.g., awarding contracts to fast food conglomerates several years ago) and are now funding the solution, which also means the bad food they order will go to waste.
Meanwhile, private schools don't appear to have the same problem. Many of them contract catering companies that make food choices that are healthy and taste good. In fact, earlier this year, one of these schools in Washington D.C. was featured in an article. They make meals from scratch. The kids eat them. Everybody is happy, without pretty fruit baskets.
If Ever There Was An Opportunity For Crowd-Sourcing.
When it comes to school lunch programs, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, the key isn't testing in high school as much as it is to introduce healthy foods in elementary school and give up on adding incentives that run counter to healthy eating habits. Kids that age are just as happy with a silly eraser as they are with gummy bears.
In high school, rather than invest $2 million in marketing gimmicks that do not instill brand loyalty (healthy foods, being a brand of sorts), the better bet is to ask the one group of people who haven't been asked — high school students. Much like Cauthron pinpointed one of the problems with his school lunch program, high school students could provide solutions.
In other words, the time to give people a choice isn't when the food is being served up, but before the food is ever prepared. The more participation students have on the front end, the more likely they will be to eat the food, assuming the school districts in charge give students more time to eat right and take sweets away as educational incentives or fundraisers.
If the people making these decisions only understood that "impulse marketing" does not create "brand loyalty" then maybe these problems would already be solved. A healthy lifestyle is not an impulse purchase. It's a way of life, which requires a personal decision. Kids need to know why it's a good decision.
Clear enough? Good, because I'd like my $2 million now. Thank you.