Fun in the Lunch-Room: A Nudge to Develop Healthy Taste Buds
A key problem in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is that healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables (F&V), are not chosen by children and it is frequently not eaten even when served. The problem is aggravated by the food habits of their lunch room participants, particularly children from low income households. Low income households are often characterized by little access to fresh F&V. The challenge then is how to make F&V more familiar to elementary school children and associate it with a positive experience. Distraction as an external cue is reported to have major effect on the food selected, the amount consumed and the eater’s perception. Similarly, it has also been reported that children preferred taste of food with cartoon characters on them.
A project is being implemented from August to December 2013 in two elementary schools serving a total of over 740 students, primarily Hispanic (Hispanic-90%, Black/AA-7%, White-3%) to instill long-term F&V consumption habits. The project modified the elementary school lunch room choice architecture to change the focus of the decision maker (lunch room participants) from food alone to food “with fun”. Choice architecture (where in choices are affected without letting the decision makers know that their decision have been influenced) has been shown to work. In this research cartoon characters were used to provide visual cues to nudge selection of F&V accompanied by an associated intervention of a reward-based game in the lunch room that encouraged students to finish their serving. A very high proportion of the children in this school receive food at school and come from low income families. The residing poverty level percentage is 91%.
Data and Preliminary Analysis
The primary data is the tray waste data recorded at three phases: pre implementation, implementation and post implementation. Thus far the frequency of lunchroom trays with consumed serving of fruits in the implementation period has increased by over 5% from the pre implementation period for grades one, two, and three. Similarly, the frequency of trays with a fruit serving has increased significantly by 17%, 7%, and 10% for grades one, two and three respectively.
The finding of this project has very high potential for future implementation. The research actions undertaken are straight forward and easy to replicate. The per-unit cost of changing the choice architecture is low. This research has the potential to be a good foundation for future research in using character marketing method to market healthy foods by public institutions and using rewards for eating healthy food. There are more than 31 million children participating in the NSLP and making the lunchroom a fun filled experience while ensuring increased F&V consumption shows promise in offsetting childhood obesity trends by developing taste and preference for F&V. It will also create increased demand for healthy food.