Nudging students to make healthier choices: How the Kent School District is bringing behavioral economics principles to their lunchrooms

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It turns out that encouraging students to make healthier choices in the lunchroom can be accomplished affordably and without a major overhaul of the cafeteria. Research shows that small changes like making the salad bar the highlight of the lunchroom, displaying fruit in attractive baskets, or placing healthy foods by the cash register can influence what students select to eat.

In Washington State, the Kent School District is leading the way by changing their cafeterias to encourage students to pick healthier foods. With the help of funding from the Community Transformation Grant, the District partnered with the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs to run a pilot program reaching over 6,000 students in six secondary school cafeterias. The goal: to increase the number of students choosing healthy foods like fruit, vegetables, white milk, or healthy entrées. And the District saw positive changes.

How does behavioral economics work in the lunchroom?
Behavioral economics looks at how our thoughts, emotions and the environment influence what we select to purchase (or in this case, why students might choose pizza and fries over fruit and vegetables). Research shows that nudging students toward healthier choices takes only small adjustments in how choices are presented.

Kent nutrition staff received three trainings on behavioral economics principles and best practices from a content expert from the BEN Center. In addition, each kitchen coordinator received technical assistance and ongoing support from school nutrition experts from Public Health—Seattle & King County and the University of Washington Center for Public Health Nutrition, a Kent School District dietitian, and a kitchen coordinator peer leader.

Low or no-cost changes
With support and training, nutrition staff:

  • Opened deli-style salad stations where students create their own salads;
  • Began offering grab-and-go sandwiches and pre-sliced fruit;
  • Worked with students to create new marketing tools promoting healthy foods including posters, videos, and colorful signage;
  • Displayed fruit and vegetables in attractive baskets and containers;
  • Placed fruit and vegetables in multiple places in the lunch line;
  • Re-organized lunch lines to increase efficiency and discourage the purchase of unhealthy foods; and
  • Placed white milk on top of or in front of chocolate milk.

“I’ve noticed the little things that I do now that I didn’t before, like putting the white milk in front and making sure that it’s really full and that it’s what they see first,” said one kitchen coordinator.

Marketing healthy foods—with the help of students
The nutrition staff didn’t go at this alone. Kent students stepped up to help their schools promote healthy food choices. They made promotional posters for the new deli stations, conducted a cafeteria survey to learn about perceptions of school meals, and provided taste-testing of new products. Students at Kent-Meridian created a video about how to use the new salad station that was featured on their “Royals Week in Review” program.

It worked—students chose more fruits and vegetables
The pilot project reached 6,158 students in the six Kent schools. To measure the success of the program, evaluators looked at both the amount of healthy foods that students took and the amount of waste on their plates when they were done (to see what kids actually ate).

The results showed changes in what students picked and what they ate. Compared to non-participating schools, more kids in the pilot schools selected fruit and vegetables, and more ate some of that fruit. In addition, students selected and ate a greater amount of fruit compared to those in non-participating schools.

The program not only affected how the students ate. Staff reported that the pilot helped them in their job and increased enthusiasm for school meals among staff and students. Kent Nutrition Services staff plan on continuing this work and expanding some of the strategies throughout the district.

This blog post is part of a series highlighting successful initiatives as part of the Community Transformation Grant (CTG). In September 2012, partners Seattle Children’s Hospital, Public Health – Seattle & King County, and the Healthy King County Coalition (HKCC) received a grant to work with local governments, schools, hospitals, low-income housing groups, and community organizations to improve the health of communities in South Seattle and South King County. Find out more here: www.kingcounty.gov/health/ctg.

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