Smarter Lunchrooms

We have heard the premise “health is wealth” a hundred times but acting falls short. The Food psychology and brand lab at Cornell University has moved onto acting through developing, implementing and spreading the Smarter Lunchrooms programme. This deals with a large problem in our society – how to improve nutrition value among  (young) students while making the food choices attractive?

Based on empirical research findings from behavioral sciences, the Smarter Lunchroom Movement has listed 6 key findings that come handy:

  1.  Portion sizes matter: The amount of food served and the container in which it is served guide how much a  person eats. Pre-fixed sizes of both help regulate the required calories for intake. So, for fat-intensive foods, keep it small and for salads, keep it big.
  2. Increase convenience: Affordance – ease of reaching out and grabbing it matter. The easier it is for the motor control system, the more plausible it is for being picked up.
  3. Visibility and attention: Making some options more visible than others (and, maybe adding some motivational lines) can go a long way.
  4.  Looks matter: Enhancing taste expectations by more elegant packaging help boost expectations of taste and hence more acceptable to have.
  5. Suggesting selling: Help one to choose with a simple smile.
  6. Pricing matters: The crucial decision stage is price perception and evaluation. Smarter pricing techniques can be built into the design to help people move towards healthier food.

smarterlunchroomsAll of this is seen in action as the United States has started to embrace research into effective health oriented lunchrooms. Researchers find that the key towards real success is in the hands of food service directors. Increasing the involvement of these directors in professional conferences and asking them to join professional bodies has a big impact in acceptability and adoption of the programme.

Now, let me contrast this to what is happening in India. Most schools tried the mid-day meal programme which was funded by the government and had a pre-fixed diet for school children who got free meals. The implementation has been marred at multiple places because most people do not have any clue of behavioral science research and also hardly any ideas about nutrition. For private schools and universities, the local private contractor along with the college administration decide the platter with some sporadic references to nutrition.

There are two important suggestions from the US smarter lunchroom programme:

(a) The professional behavioral/psychological bodies in India start to open membership to one and all – especially to contractors of canteens and service providers to institutions which houses students  (and then also offer training programmes to help spread what we know about food decision making to them)

(b) The Indian government needs to bring in behavioral / cognitive scientists and behavioral economists to see how one can work out a rewards-punishment based policy that enforces a directionality of what possible food options to provide minimally by factoring in what we already know about how people deal with food.

Both of these are not mammoth tasks and can see light. Further, beyond immediate health, these steps have the possibility of moving a student towards a better future. Firstly, better breakfast leads to better gradesaccording to one study (old wisdom!). Secondly, these better grades along with good study habits predict achievement in later life beyond I.Q.

Seeing some parts of the Indian education system and the holes in-between; for all this to work, we need better quality control and reduced corruption.

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(C) Sumitava Mukherjee, with some rights reserved. You are free to share and re-publish this article anywhere. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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