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Smarter Lunchrooms Can Address New School Lunchroom Guidelines and Childhood Obesity

Hanks, Andrew S., David Just and Brian Wansink (2013). Smarter Lunchrooms Can Address New School Lunchroom Guidelines and Childhood Obesity. Journal of Pediatrics, 162 (4), 867-869. doi 10.1016/j.jpeds.2012.12.031

New USDA regulations require that schools participating in the National School Lunch Program follow new nutrition guidelines. These include increasing whole grain options, serving only 1% or skim milk and reducing the amount of less healthful foods such as French fries. However, these guidelines may result in reactive behavior from students who may refuse to consume healthy options. We propose the use of “libertarian paternalism” to influence choices, not by restricting choices, but by making healthier options more attractive.

In this study, two western New York junior high and high schools underwent the Smarter Lunchroom Makeover in a single afternoon. The makeover took 3 hours and cost under $50 to implement. The makeover incorporated environmental changes that increase the convenience, attractiveness, and normative nature of healthy foods in order to influence kids to select them on their own. These changes remained in place from May to June. Researchers studied purchasing records and plate waste for six separate days in each school to determine the effect of the Smarter Lunchroom Makeover. Selection and consumption of fruits, vegetables and starchy sides were measured.

Significant change was seen in selection of healthy fruits and vegetables after the implementation of the Smarter Lunchroom Makeover. Fruits were 13.4% more likely to be selected and vegetables were 23% more likely to be selected. Consumption of fruits and vegetables also increased; fruit consumption increased by 18% and vegetable consumption by 25%. After the makeover, students were 16% more likely to eat an entire serving of fruit and 10% more likely to eat an entire serving of vegetables. Results showed no change in the selection and intake of starchy sides.

These findings show that the Smarter Lunchroom Makeover is successful in increasing fruit and vegetable intake by students despite a wide range of alternative options. With the new USDA regulations the Smarter Lunchroom Makeover can be a useful tool to reduce food waste and increase more nutritious choices.