How Smart Cafeterias Could Fight Childhood Obesity

Telling students what to eat won't keep them healthy. Reengineering lunchrooms so they make good choices will.


DC Central Kitchen/flickr

How do people celebrate National School Lunch week? If you asked around, you'd never hear of any parties or parades—all you'd hear are laughs. Even though over 30 million children are fed by the National School Lunch Program, school lunches are bullied daily by critics, activists, and celebrity chefs and blamed for contributing to childhood obesity. Unfortunately, the suggestions of these critics and of well-intentioned PTAs and school boards can often lead to policies that backfire with disastrous consequences.

One foodservice professional recently complained to us that as soon as the parents had successfully lobbied to ban "junk foods" from the lunchroom, their children stopped eating there. Instead of buying the school lunch with the occasional high-calorie snack, they skipped lunch, ate snacks from home, grabbed fast food from off-campus restaurants, or brought food from home that was often much less healthy. It is difficult to teach a high school student how to make healthy choices in the real world if only escarole and tofu on are on the school lunch menu.

If a school requires students to pay with cash when buying cookies, children buy fewer cookies and more fruit.

Instead, the ideal lunchroom—the smartest lunchroom—would be the one that led children to make healthy choices in the face of some more tempting options. Restaurant owners know that subtle changes in how food is presented can have a large impact on food choice. These same tools can be applied within the school lunch context with surprising results. One school in upstate New York was able to increase consumption of salads by close to 300 percent by simply moving their salad bar six feet from the wall and placing it near a natural bottleneck in the check-out line. Another school increased fruit sales by 105 percent by moving the apples and oranges from stainless steel bins into a well-lit and attractive basket.

These low-cost/no-cost solutions leverage the natural psychology of choice that teenagers use when choosing their lunch. Such behavioral solutions deserve our attention for three reasons. First, they have dramatic results—many are three to five times more effective than more traditional policies. Second, these solutions are inexpensive. Many can be triggered by simply rearranging the food that is already in the line. There are no new recipes, no implementation costs, and no equipment that would cost more than $50. Third, these solutions do not generate the type of reduction in lunch participation that has become the norm in schools that have taken the escarole-and-tofu approach and have eliminated the cookies and chocolate milk. High participation is good not only for schools seeking more sustainable finances but also for the children who might otherwise choose to skip lunch, or bring less healthy Lunchable-like food from home.

To help make lunchrooms smarter, the USDA is taking a big step forward in supporting these more innovative and sustainable solutions through its recent funding of our Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Program. The goal is to encourage researchers and schools to work together in finding solutions to make lunchrooms smarter that are easy and cheap—or even free. For instance, if a school requires students to pay with cash when buying cookies (disallowing debit purchases on less healthy food), children buy fewer cookies and more fruit. If a school puts healthier foods at the front and end of a line, children take more than if they are in the middle.

Food isn't nutritious until it is eaten. We don't improve school lunches by making children take healthier items. When healthy foods are forced upon them, children will resist and dislike not only the heavy-handed approach but also the food associated with that heavy hand. We improve school lunches by nudging children to make the right choices on their own. That way, when they take the apple instead of the cookie, it was their idea.

For more details about lunchroom redesign strategies, visit to see Just and Wansink's interactive op-chart.