Why Behavioral Economics Belongs in the Lunchroom

Our ability to describe America's obesity epidemic has outpaced our ability to solve it. If you want the seminal description, read Marc Ambinder's Atlantic cover story. If you want the single solution ... well, keep looking. In the last few decades, our evolutionary instinct to maximize caloric intake has married our economic instinct to buy cheap, subsidized, mass-produced fat foods. As a result, four out of ten Americans may be obese before the end of the decade.

Perhaps there is a role for large-scale federal intervention: slashing payments to corn producers; raising taxes on sugary beverages; subsidizing fresh produce in low-income areas that are especially susceptible to the tantalizingly cheap stuff. But there is also a role for smaller-scale innovation that plays on individuals eaters' psychology.

For example: A new study today finds that food in cartooned packages tastes better for children:

Children significantly preferred the taste of foods that had popular cartoon characters on the packaging, compared with the same foods without characters. The majority of children selected the food sample with a licensed character on it for their snack, but the effects were weaker for carrots than for gummy fruit snacks and graham crackers.

It's easy to overlook the impact of small visual cues in eating habits. David Just and Brian Wansick have studied the impact of behavioral economics (the space between psychology and econ) on school lunchrooms. Banning chips and paying more for arugula might be smart, they write, but there are subtler ways to nudge kids toward eating healthy without embargoes. Here are some of their ideas:

Move the Fruit: Kids make impulse purchases at the cash register. So when you put a bowl of fruit next to the register instead of candy, candy sales go down and fruit sales go up with little change in total revenue.

Situate the Salad Bar: When one school moved a salad bar to the middle of the lunchroom to make it an impediment to traffic flow, sales increased markedly.

Cash for Desserts: Let kids charge food to a debit card but make candy and soda a cash-only purchase, and what happens? You've introduced a prohibitive psychological hurdle for kids who want to get their food and go. What's more, according to the authors' study of USDA information, the change did not hurt revenue but led to greater sales of more nutritious items.

Make fruit more visible. Make the salad bar an impediment to traffic. Shine a light on veggies. Make candy cash-only. These aren't federal budget changes that don't require paying off members of the agricultural committee. Instead, they're small nudges in the direction of healthy eating in lunchrooms, and they work.

It's crucial that we learn the value of behavioral economics to affect decision-making at the school level. Weight gained before middle-age is notoriously difficult to lose, but we can begin to reverse the obesity epidemic by learning how to nip it in the bud.