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Trigger Foods: The Influence of “Irrelevant” Alternatives in School Lunchrooms

Hanks, Andrew, David Just, and Brian Wansink (2012). Trigger Foods: The Influence of ‘Irrelevant’ Alternatives in School Lunchrooms. Agricultural and Resource Economics Review 41(1):114-123.

In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that will go into effect during the 2012-2013 school year. The provisions include requiring each child to take a fruit and vegetable in order to qualify for a reimbursable meal. However, according to existing research, just because a healthier food is on a child’s lunch tray does not mean the child will actually consume it. In this study, we examined how the presence of certain foods in a lunch line may cause children to select more healthy or unhealthy items.

We conducted the study in two schools in upstate New York. Data was collected between March and June by trained research assistants. We tracked menu offerings, purchase records and food waste over the course of several months. Our data analysis uncovered a phenomenon which we call 'trigger foods.' What this means is that the availability of a particular food item can influence or 'trigger' the selection of other foods on the menu ' even when that particular item is not chosen.

Our results showed both green beans and bananas to be positive trigger foods, causing children to take less cookies, ice cream bars, and snack foods. On the other hand, celery, applesauce, and fruit cocktail were found to be negative trigger foods, increasing the number of unhealthy foods purchased. Bananas made ice cream 11-16% less popular. Fruit cocktail made Little Debbie snacks 7-9% more popular. Being aware of trigger foods can help policymakers and parents help children make healthier food choices by setting them up in an environment to succeed.