Listen Along with HSC: The Magic of Smart Lunchrooms

January 23, 2015

Here at HSC, we love a good conversation about school food. In part, that’s because it’s about so much more than it seems: The topic of school food connects to issues as wide-ranging as health disparities, transportation systems, farming practices and our values as a society.

Now, we have a new place to indulge our love for a lunchroom chat: the Inside School Food radio program. The show is hosted by Laura Stanley, a food journalist, school food advocate and longtime friend of HSC. It’s a treat to follow along as she delves into the details of school food with a diverse group of interesting and engaging guests. The episodes are brief, entertaining and informative. We fully recommend it! You can listen live (Mondays at 11 a.m. EST) or download the episodes and listen later. We’ll be sharing our thoughts and observations on a few episodes here on HSC’s blog.

Today, we listen along to Episode 15: How Smart Are Your Lunchrooms?

“It’s not magic,  it’s marketing,” says Laura Stanley in this fascinating episode about the simple but powerful strategies that are transforming school cafeterias.

But the results can sure seem like magic:

  • A salad bar that used to attract 10 students a day is moved two feet (just two feet!) and now attracts at least 75 students each day.
  • Plate waste goes down by 25 percent when broccoli is given a name chosen by grade-school students: “Sparkly Broccoli.” (You’ll have to tune in to hear what happened with “Super Beans” and “X-Ray Vision Carrots.”)
  • More students begin taking and eating fruit when it’s displayed in a prominent place near the front of the lunch line.

These results all come from simple and “lovingly manipulative” changes that involve very little, if any, extra expense.

In this episode, Laura talks to Kate Hoy of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs (known as the B.E.N. Center), which is pioneering research in this field,  and Dr. Marietta Orlowski of Wright State University, who works as a field evaluator for the center’s programs.

The small changes are based in the concepts of behavioral economics, which Hoy explains is about “designing the environment so it encourages the individuals in it to make decisions you want them to make, without them even really knowing it.”

For example: “Would you like an orange or a plum?” Either way, the answer is a tasty and nutritious piece of fruit.

The idea of choice is a big deal in the center’s strategies, as researchers aim to help kids not only eat well but also develop the skills for making healthy choices outside of school. The approaches are rigorously researched so that the Cornell team knows their recommendations are worth making time for in the busy world of school food service.

Hoy shares a wealth of fun success stories plus one school’s epic misadventure in limiting students’ access to ketchup (and a few ideas for strategies that would have brought about much better — but probably less funny — results). Dr. Orlowski shares her perspective from the field and stories about how these strategies are working in a diverse range of schools.

The funding for this research comes from the USDA as part of its approach to investing in the implementation of the updated school food nutrition standards it rolled out several years ago. These standards include heaps of healthy changes with a focus on more — and more variety of — fruits and vegetables. The standards have been the target of political attack, though, and we expect more debate in the year ahead about whether schools can implement the standards and whether students will eat the healthier food.

In the context of this big debate, it’s quite amazing to pause and listen to the profoundly simple ideas that are making such a big difference. As Laura puts it: “The challenges are so complex, yet sometimes what it takes to turn things around is very simple.”

If students aren’t devouring their broccoli at lunch, this episode reminds us, the solution isn’t to replace the broccoli with French fries. The answer could be as simple as a fresh look at the lunch line and as magic as a super-duper sparkly name change.

Plus:  We were pretty excited about these ideas when they started showing up in the news way back in 2009. Check out Mark Bishop’s old blog post on x-ray vision carrots!