Better School Meals on a Budget: Using Behavioral Economics and Food Psychology to Improve Meal Selection
Just, David R. and Brian Wansink (2009), “Better School Meals on a Budget: Using Behavioral Economics and Food Psychology to Improve Meal Selection,” Choices, 24:3, 1-6
11 Pages Posted: 20 Jan 2016
Date Written: June 6, 2010
Rising obesity rates among children have lead many to lay blame at the feet of the school lunch program. Local school lunch administrators feel tremendous pressure from parents and activists to drop higher calorie items from the menu such as cookies, sodas or ice cream. Proponents of these measures argue that if children can’t buy it, they will not consume the items, thus reducing the child’s total intake of calories. Additional pressure has pushed for healthier fare in the USDA subsidized school lunches. Here proponents have pushed to replace the familiar pizza, hot dogs or burgers with items involving words such as “whole grain,” “organic,” “vegetarian” or “raw.”
At the same time, strong demands are placed on district school lunch programs to be financially solvent. With declines in property values and other income, school budgets are declining. While not run for profit, school lunch programs must keep participation levels high and must meet costs in order to preserve the education budget of the school district. Thus, school lunch administrators must also worry about what will sell. It may be possible to replace the standard cheese pizza on white flour crust with a pizza smothered in spinach, artichoke hearts and other vegetables on a whole wheat flaxseed crust. But, the healthier pizza is more expensive, and fewer children want to eat it. Hence many school districts walk a tightrope. They must increase the health content of their sales, while trying not to reduce their financial viability. Often times, eliminating the less healthy items means eliminating the highest margin items. Further, child patronage of the school lunch program is understandably dependent upon schools offering foods that they are familiar with, like, and that will satisfy their appetite.
Economists and psychologists are developing a new set of tools that promise to help relax the tension between these two competing views of school lunches. These new tools are based in the emerging discipline of behavioral economics. Behavioral economics combines the behavioral models of psychology with the decision models of economics to help highlight how biases in perception, memory, or thought processes may influence purchasing decisions. This new approach helps us to identify the behavioral triggers that lead to the selection and consumption of healthier foods and healthier quantities of food. As well, we can determine the subtle and inadvertent signals that school cafeterias may send that trigger less healthy eating. Moreover, many of the factors identified by behavioral economics can be exploited with very little investment.
Much of the apparent tension between health and cost is due to the particular approaches taken to each problem. Introducing ultra healthy products into the lunchroom requires a significant increase in spending while reducing unit sales and total participation levels. Banning popular items for their content also directly reduces sales. But suppose, for example, that instead we could simply rearrange items that are currently offered within the school to encourage children to buy more of the healthy items and less of the unhealthy items. Such a strategy costs very little, has a negligible impact on overall revenue, and may provide a way for school districts to show a demonstrable increase in the healthy content of their meals. By using tools that will both increase the sales of healthier foods while decreasing the sales of less healthy foods, behavioral tools can achieve the nutritional goals while having a minimal impact on the bottom line.
Keywords: food selection, behavioral economics, obesity, school lunches, efficiency, healthy eating, food psychology
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