- Jun 30 2016
When new nutrition standards rolled out into American schools – making healthier food compulsory – cafeterias experienced immediate and severe backlash. Students were turned off by the healthy and whole grain options that suddenly appeared on their lunch trays. And as schools racked up $3.8 million worth of wasted food every day, many quickly realized that serving healthy meals does nothing for students’ health and well-being if it isn’t eaten.
So how can schools effectively raise healthy food consumption? The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement proved that all it takes is a bit of creativity, adjusted product placement and some marketing smarts to nudge students in the right direction. The grass roots movement, developed by the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs, gathered insight by conducting studies and testing ideas inside a wide range of school cafeterias across the country. Through the mass of research emerged several highly effective, low-cost or even no-cost tools that help to improve children’s eating behaviors.
The Smarter Lunchroom Movement is currently changing students’ eating habits in 90 percent of Sodexo cafeterias in the U.S.
Since implementing the program, Sodexo reported that 21 percent more vegetables were eaten and fruit consumption rose by 14 percent at schools using these techniques.
The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement defined several research-based principles guaranteed to get students reaching for nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables. First, schools should understand that students, like many consumers, are attracted to variety and are more inclined to select an item that looks appealing and fresh. For example, children will be drawn to a colorful mixture of different types of whole fruits, displayed in large vibrant bowls – as opposed to plates of apple slices lined up in rows.
The research also pointed out that children are impulsive when selecting food items. As such, placing healthy items in easy-to-see locations or near the cashier can boost interest. Similarly, children will be less inclined to purchase snack items such as chips or sweets that are kept out of reach. These less healthy options should be sold behind the counter and made available by request only.
Steering children away from classic kid-approved staples such as pizza and burgers is no small task, but researchers with the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement discovered that the answer must come directly from the source – the students themselves. Setting up a SNAC (student nutrition action committee), made up of motivated student volunteers provides a great source of feedback and insight. These groups can also be tasked with brainstorming creative names for menu items. Research shows that giving fun or descriptive names to menu items can boost student interest (increasing healthy food selection by 40-70 percent). For younger students, names should be fun or silly, such as the “Big Bad Bean Burrito,” whereas older students prefer descriptive names such as “Tuscan Tomato Pie.” One key piece of advice: steer away from using the word “healthy,” while it may be the ultimate goal, it does not attract young customers.
Schools can also draw attention to new menu items by placing signage in high traffic areas where students are sure to take notice. Setting up food demonstrations or offering samples can also encourage students to try new dishes outside of their comfort zone.
Changing students’ eating habits is crucial to improving overall health and combatting childhood obesity. On top of these obvious benefits, a growing body of research shows that the food students consume plays a significant role in how well they perform in school. For example, low consumption of healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables has been associated with lower grades; moreover students who lack essential nutrients in their diets also report higher rates of absenteeism.
With these encouraging results already underway, Sodexo is committed to expanding the Smarter Lunchroom Movement into all Sodexo cafeterias across the US.
Food isn’t nutritious until it’s eaten. While the idea seems simple enough, many schools provide healthy choices but do nothing to encourage students to actually change the way they eat and improve their overall health. This is the idea behind the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement.
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