"Even factors like lighting, noise level, and table crowding can affect our snack-buying decisions."
I love infographics. Nothing excites me more than seeing real facts about the world manifested in easy to understand, interactive pictorial representation. (Nerdy? You betcha.) So when I came across 'Lunch Line Redesign," a piece in the New York Times last week by Brian Wansink, David R. Just, and Joe McKendry, I couldn't help but e-mail it to several friends and family members.
First and foremost it makes recommendations for improving school lunch lines. Scroll over each info symbol in the graphic and reveal another clever way that schools could incorporate healthy choices into their menus. Some tips shift food placement—moving broccoli to the front of the line, for example, increases student purchase of broccoli by 10 to 15 percent. Other tips are slightly "sneakier," like keeping ice cream in an opaque-lidded container, or placing chocolate milk behind plain milk on the counter (in both cases, purchase of the sweeter snacks decreased).
Intrigued by the information presented in this display, I went digging for more work by the same three authors. The study that formed the basis for this infographic was from a recent USDA economic report. Placed in the framework of examining the buying habits of those on government-supported nutrition programs, the study brings to light a lot of fascinating details about how we make food choices. The information could theoretically be used to craft better legislation for the food stamp program, or on a smaller scale, help schools change their own food practices.
The researchers aptly emphasize that "behavioral economics, food marketing, and psychology" are all influences in what we have for lunch. For instance, the study showed that we are impulse purchasers—so having students pre-select menu options for their lunch could result in healthier eating habits. Additionally, those with funds pre-allocated for specific types of food—so many food stamps for vegetables, so many for grains, etc.—generally made more nutritional food choices overall than if handed a lump sum of stamps. Even factors like lighting, noise level, and table crowding can affect our snack-buying decisions.
The information provided is not flawless. For instance, I had a bone to pick with the fact that all the statistics on the graphic are of what students bought, but not necessarily what they ate. While tracking actual consumption is much trickier than tracking purchasing, it's hard to ignore the instinct that kids might let that broccoli wilt on their tray. That being said, such dramatic upswings in purchasing probably imply substantially healthier eating patterns as well.
This fun, fascinating study illuminates not only how to improve school lunch, but also how each of us can examine our own food choices. Next time you're at a cafeteria, glance around. Is the fruit attractively displayed? Is there a salad bar next to the register?
Or are you headed straight for a tasty tower of brownies? Wansink et. al.'s suggestions could help steer us towards healthier mid-day meals. And perhaps the higher-ups will begin to see the efficacy of implementing small but subconsciously noticeable changes to the nation's food programs.
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