Hide the dessert

By bet­ter po­si­tion­ing foods, the US Govern­ment is try­ing to get kids to choose health­ier foods in school cafe­te­rias.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - HEALTH - By MAR­I­LYNN MAR­CHIONE

HIDE the choco­late milk be­hind the plain milk. Get those ap­ples and or­anges out of stain­less steel bins and into pretty bas­kets. Cash only for desserts.

These sub­tle moves can en­tice kids to make health­ier choices in school lunch lines, stud­ies show.

Food and res­tau­rant mar­keters have long used sim­i­lar tricks. Now the US govern­ment wants in on the act.

The US Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture (USDA) an­nounced what it called a ma­jor new ini­tia­tive last Tues­day, giv­ing US$2mil (RM6.2mil) to food be­hav­iour sci­en­tists to find ways to use psy­chol­ogy to im­prove kids’ use of the fed­eral school lunch pro­gramme and fight child­hood obe­sity.

A fresh ap­proach is clearly needed, those be­hind the ef­fort say.

About one-third of chil­dren and teens are obese or over­weight.

Bans on soda and junk food have back­fired in some places. Some stu­dents have aban­doned school meal pro­grammes that tried to force-feed healthy choices. When one school district put fruit on ev­ery lunch tray, most of it ended up in the garbage.

So in­stead of pur­su­ing a car­ro­tor-stick ap­proach, schools want to en­tice kids to choose the carrot sticks, fig­ur­ing chil­dren are more likely to eat some­thing they se­lect them­selves.

“It’s not nutrition un­til it’s eaten,” said Joanne Guthrie, a USDA re­searcher who an­nounced the new grants.

The ini­tia­tive will in­clude cre­ation of a child nutrition cen­tre at Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity, which has long led this type of re­search.

Some tricks al­ready judged a suc­cess by Cor­nell re­searchers:

> Keep ice cream in freez­ers with­out glass dis­play tops, so the treats are out of sight.

> Move salad bars next to the check­out reg­is­ters, where stu­dents linger to pay, giv­ing them more time to pon­der a salad.

> And start a quick line for makey­our-own subs and wraps, as Corn­ing East High School in up­state New York did.

“I eat that ev­ery day now,” said 17-year-old high school se­nior Shea Beecher, in­stead of the chicken patty sand­wiches that used to be her sta­ple.

“It’s like our own lit­tle Sub­way,” said 15-year-old high school sopho­more Ster­ling Smith.

Last year, the USDA asked the

Schools in the United States are try­ing psy­chol­ogy to en­tice stu­dents to choose more nu­tri­tional lunches. In­sti­tute of Medicine for ad­vice on its school lunch and break­fast pro­grammes, which pro­vide free or sub­sidised meals to more than 31 mil­lion school­child­ren each day.

The in­sti­tute rec­om­mended more fruit, veg­eta­bles and whole grains with lim­its on fat, salt and calo­ries.

But it was clear this wouldn’t help un­less kids ac­cepted health­ier foods, Guthrie said.

“We can’t just say we’re go­ing to change the menu and all of our prob­lems will be solved,” she said.

The agency re­quested pro­pos­als from re­searchers on how to get kids to ac­tu­ally eat the good stuff.

Cor­nell’s fo­cus will be de­vel­op­ing “smart lunch­rooms” that guide kids to make good choices, even when more tempt­ing ones are around.

“We’re not tak­ing things away from kids,” said Cor­nell sci­en­tist Brian Wansink. “It’s mak­ing the bet­ter choice the eas­ier, more con­ve­nient choice.”

Wansink is a prom­i­nent food sci­ence re­searcher, known for stud­ies on the de­pic­tion of food in paint­ings of the Last Sup­per and how the place­ment of a candy jar can af­fect how much peo­ple eat from it.

Food ser­vice di­rec­tor for Corn­ing City School District near Cor­nell, Chris­tine Wal­lace, met him a few years ago and in­vited him to use her 14 schools as a lab.

“We tend to look at what we’re of­fer­ing and to make sure it’s well pre­pared and in the cor­rect por­tion size, and not the psy­chol­ogy of it. We’re just not trained that way,” Wal­lace said.

For ex­am­ple, some Corn­ing schools had ex­press lines for a la carté items – mostly chips, cook­ies and ice cream.

The idea was to re­duce bot­tle­necks caused by full tray lunches that took longer to ring up. But the re­sult was a pub­lic health night­mare.

“We were mak­ing it very con­ve­nient for them to quickly go through the line and get a bunch of less nu­tri­tious items,” Wal­lace said.

Af­ter stud­ies by Wansink, they re­named some foods in the ele­men­tary schools – “X-ray vi­sion car­rots” and “lean, mean green beans” – and watched con­sump­tion rise.

Cafe­te­ria work­ers also got more in­volved, ask­ing, “Would you rather have green beans or car­rots to­day?” in­stead of wait­ing for a kid to request them.

And just ask­ing, “Do you want a salad with that?” on pizza day at one high school raised salad con­sump­tion 30%, Wansink said. – AP

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