I remember the first time I was allowed to buy school lunch in elementary school. Gone were the days of peanut butter and honey sandwiches, I was on to new horizons: frozen chicken nuggets, French fries, and chocolate milk. It was a whole new, delicious world. Over the years I looked forward to taco day, chicken patty day, and of course, pizza day, which was almost every day. What is it about those square school pizzas that just draw you in at first smell? It’s every kids dream to have pizza and French fries for lunch. Every. Single. Day.
But now as an adult, a dietitian, and a mom that’s going to have to one day argue with her son about buying or packing lunch, I’m appalled at what’s served in schools. Unfortunately I know it’s a lot easier to talk about what needs to be changed than actually change it. It’s because school leaders don’t understand or don’t want to provide better options for their students, but it costs money. You’d be surprised how much 10 cents here and there adds up when you look at feeding a whole school.
So what are schools supposed to do if they don’t have the money to offer healthier options? A new study from Cornell University looks at school lunches with a whole different approach. They’re not as worried about what’s on the serving line as they are about where the food is in the cafeteria. You know those end-of-aisle displays that always suck you, guarenteeing that you can’t make it out of Target for under 50 bucks? The Cornell researchers applied that same marketing strategies to school lunchrooms and it worked. Researchers found kids were more likely to pick up a piece of fruit if it was placed next to the cash register. They were also more likely to take a piece of fruit if someone asked if they wanted it. Putting healthy snack options in high-traffic areas of the cafeteria drew in more kids, instead of having everything stuck behind the long lunch line.
The study authors also noticed a few other interesting findings, like kids were more likely to eat an apple if it was cut into slices versus a whole apple. The fresher and less packaged an item was, the more likely kids were to eat it. Kids also preferred to eat veggies that were a part of the main entree, not a side. Having healthy options unobtrusively offered instead of mandated resulted in kids eating more of the good stuff. Kind of like when your mom tells you that you have to clean your room, which makes you not want to do it.
The researchers were able to transform a sample cafeteria into a new “smart lunchroom” with only $50 and a couple of hours. I don’t think that’s asking a lot of the school system, especially when you consider the true price of childhood obesity.