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With millions of children served each schoolday, USDA-sponsored school meals provide an important opportunity to improve diet and health. Schools can exert considerable control over the food choices they offer and the manner in which they are presented—the “choice architecture” in behavioral economic terms. Behavioral economic theory suggests several possibilities to structure school cafeteria environments in a noncoercive manner to encourage healthy choices. School Cafeterias, a Promising Venue for Choice Architecture Thirty million children and adolescents eat a USDA-sponsored school lunch and almost 10 million eat a USDA-sponsored breakfast every schoolday, making school meals a particularly important opportunity to improve the diets and health of U.S. Despite pressure to improve meals, most schools continue to sell less nutritious foods and beverages in addition to USDA meals. Participants received a total of $20 either all in cash or $10 in cash and a $10 restricted or unrestricted prepayment card. The researchers found the frequency with which certain foods were ordered differed significantly by payment type.
To test the potential efficacy of pre-ordering, these same researchers asked participants in a pre-selected group to make their food choice off a menu board and fill out an order card prior to entering the cafeteria. The results showed that the effect of ordering in line while viewing the food was varied and may have had more to do with the visual appeal of the food than its health content.
Envision and create an atmosphere and feel for an innovative conceptual restaurant which caters to healthy eaters. For this project, in two weeks time we produced from a clean slate; A full business identity (Logo, Business cards, Standards for use), menus (a two-sided half page menu and a one-side full page menu), coasters, grand opening newspaper ad, and promotional t-shirt designs. As part of the healthy eating plan the range of available soft drinks concentrates on low sugar alternatives including water. Since passage of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act of 2004, schools that participate in USDA school meal programs have been required to develop wellness policies covering foods available in school, nutrition education, and physical activity.
The School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study-III (SNDA-III) collected nationally representative data on school food offerings and student dietary intakes in spring 2005. Since the arrangement of the school food environment may influence students’ choices, it is important to consider the consequences, unintended or not, of design and layout.
Simply seeing a brownie or other high-calorie food, for example, can lead to unplanned consumption. Behavioral studies show individuals who made food choices before being confronted with distractions, visceral influences, or the promise of immediate gratification were less likely to exhibit present-biased preferences and more likely to follow through on their dietary objectives.
Prepayment options such as student debit cards or personal identification numbers (PIN) numbers linked to prepaid meal accounts are an increasingly popular way of handling school meal payments.
The first experiment found that payment options do indeed significantly affect food choices. Cash was provided to prepaid card recipients so that they were not completely restricted in their lunch purchases.


The same stickers were used to identify the healthy food choices on the menu and in front of the items offered in the cafeteria line.
Students using the unrestricted debit card were about 25 percent more likely to purchase a brownie, 27 percent more likely to buy soda, and 7 percent less likely to buy skim milk than those using cash. Those using the unrestricted debit card ate significantly more calories than either the cash or restricted groups, with restricted-debit card users consuming the fewest calories. Surprisingly, individuals using cash spent more on average than those with an unrestricted prepaid card. A researcher accompanied the participant to the food line and gave the order card to the food preparation staff. While allowing prepayment only for healthier foods seems a promising approach, it is not known how well it will work with school-age children in a real-world cafeteria environment.
They were all either taken on Hawthorne or in the kitchen where the food was being prepared. In particular, applying choice-architecture research findings to school foodservice could help encourage more healthy behavior in children and teens. With rising rates of child obesity, child health advocates are eager to see America’s schools make more use of this opportunity. Results showed that, in addition to providing USDA meals, most middle and high schools sold low-nutrient, high-calorie foods and beverages either through vending machines or as à la carte cafeteria items. People are less willing to limit salt, calories, and fat for better future health if they are considering these sacrifices on the spot rather than for a future meal or snack.
Allowing students (or for younger children, their parents) to select healthy meal options ahead of time also may help reduce purchases of less nutritious foods in the cafeteria. Parents can prepay for meals in a private, designated school lunch account, with students receiving meal cards that are used to debit the account when they go through the cafeteria line. Using approximately 200 college students from Cornell University, researchers randomly assigned participants to one of three payment options: unrestricted prepaid cards that could be used for any menu item, restricted cards that could only be used for more healthful items, and cash.
For example, a participant with a restricted “healthy” card could have spent the $10 in cash to purchase any combination of entrée, side dish, dessert, and drink.
Participants were informed that the debit card could only be used for these items, and that they could use cash for other menu items. Individuals using the unrestricted card were more likely to buy less healthful (though similarly priced) side items and desserts than those using cash. Students using the restricted card spent the least on less nutritious items, while those using the unrestricted card spent the most on these foods. Another group of participants made up the control group, whose members filled out the same card in line while viewing all the menu options and handed their order directly to the foodservice staff. For example, a diner going through the cafeteria line is more likely to choose the “default” side of fries with a hamburger, rather than another (and perhaps healthier) option.


School cafeteria managers may be able to control many of the elements shown to influence food choice, such as how foods are presented. Some school administrators justify the presence of these “competitive foods” on the grounds that they meet student preferences, offer choice, and help to balance tight foodservice budgets in a period of escalating food costs. It is possible that noise levels, crowding, and long cafeteria lines may work against rational decisionmaking about food choices. Positive decision cues, such as smartly packaged healthy “grab and go” options, may help time-pressed, hungry, and distracted students make better food choices. Students receiving free and reduced-price meals also are provided debit meal cards to minimize any appearance of differences in payment between them and students paying full price.
But allowing individuals to only prepay for nutritious foods could serve as a commitment device that would help nudge students to make healthier choices. Participants were told that all cash not spent or money left on their card would be returned to them. Those using the unrestricted card consumed the most calories at lunch but had the fewest calories from nutritious foods. Though more expedient than calculating the expected payoff from each and every decision, these cues and rules of thumb can lead to systematic reasoning errors when people make food choices. Identifying how these elements could be used to cue healthier choices may help improve students’ diets without sacrificing freedom of choice. Many child-health advocates want to ban less nutritious competitive foods, citing that children may lack the maturity to consider the long-term consequences of their choices when faced with the immediate appeal of sugary or high-fat foods. This tendency suggests that a carefully planned arrangement of food in cafeterias could influence students’ choices, and ultimately, their diet quality. Purchases by students using the restricted debit card were markedly different than those by students using either the cash or the unrestricted cards. By comparison, students using the restricted debit card consumed the fewest total calories but the most calories from nutritious foods. However, some schools and parents oppose such bans, either for school budgetary reasons or because they believe students are entitled to have food choices and, in the larger world, will eventually have to learn to make such choices on their own. In nearly every case, students were more likely to order healthy items when purchase options were restricted.
Compared with the students who used the unrestricted card, those using the restricted debit card also ate significantly less added sugar, total fat, saturated fat, and caffeine. In particular, choice may be more important to older students, and data show that the variety of competitive foods available expands in secondary schools.



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