In January of 2012, the United States Department of Agriculture passed a series of regulations designed to make school lunches more nutritious, which included requiring schools to increase whole grain foods and forcing students to select either a fruit or vegetable with their purchased lunch. 

This led to athletes and other students to claim they were not getting enough calories and complaints from advocates for poor children that, since it is the best meal some children might get during the day, it should not be focused on social engineering. Trash cans filled with fruit didn't help things. 

Rather than heavy-handed social authoritarianism, which kids resent, a new paper in The Journal of Pediatrics says small, inexpensive changes to school cafeterias influence choice and consumption of healthier foods.



A parody of the school lunch changes, created by high school students.

The authors write about the effects of multiple small interventions, called 'the smarter lunchroom makeover', in the cafeterias of two junior-senior high schools (grades 7-12) in western New York. In the test lunchrooms, changes were implemented to improve the convenience and attractiveness of fruits and vegetables (e.g., fresh fruit next to the cash register in nice bowls or tiered stands) and make the selection of fruits and vegetables seem standard through verbal cues from cafeteria staff (e.g., "Would you like to try an apple?").

The smarter lunchroom makeover took no more than 3 hours in one afternoon and cost less than $50 to implement. These types of changes are applications of the behavioral science principle termed "libertarian paternalism," which promotes influencing choice through behavioral cues, while preserving choices.

To measure the impact of the smarter lunchroom makeover, researchers recorded what was left on trays after lunch, both before and after the intervention. After the smarter lunchroom makeover, students were 13% more likely to take fruits and 23% more likely to take vegetables. Actual fruit consumption increased by 18% and vegetable consumption increased by 25%; students were also more likely to eat the whole serving of fruit or vegetables (16% and 10%, respectively).

These low-cost, yet effective interventions could significantly influence healthier behaviors, potentially helping to offset childhood obesity trends.  Co-author Andrew S. Hanks, PhD, of Cornell said, "This not only preserves choice, but has the potential to lead children to develop lifelong habits of selecting and consuming healthier foods even when confronted with less healthy options."

They say these simple changes could also be effective in the cafeterias of other organizations, including hospitals, companies, and retirement homes.