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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.
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.