October 13, 2010

$2 Million Initiative Establishes Child Nutrition Program

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With child obesity rates rising steadily and students in lunch lines nationwide routinely choosing pizza over fruits and vegetables, two Cornell professors are using behavioral economics to change how children see healthy food.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a new $2 million initiative to encourage students to make healthier choices in the lunchroom. Half of this money has been granted to Cornell researchers, who will create a Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics within Child Nutrition Programs. The remaining million has been divided among other food and behavioral scientists around the country.

Improving the placement, presentation or lighting of healthy foods can drastically increase student consumption, according to Prof. David Just, applied economics and management, who will co-direct the center with Prof. Brian Wansink, applied economics and management.

The center will be housed in the basement of Warren Hall.

Just described the USDA grant as an opportunity to develop and expand on approximately five years of Cornell research.

“It’s the culmination of a lot of work beforehand,” he said.

Just said he is eager to use the grant to advance three main goals.

First, he hopes to gather a team of researchers in the field of behavioral economics. He said that current school lunch programs focus exclusively on nutrition, and the addition of behavioral insight will make the programs more effective. The new center will offer two-year grants to graduate students and junior faculty interested in studying the issue.

Next, Just said the professors plan to put the results of their research into practice in school cafeterias. Professors are already in contact with school food service directors around the country, including schools in nearby cities of Corning and Plattsburgh.

Finally, the research will be used to inform politicians and policymakers.

Just said he hopes that the recommendations of the center will allow schools to “nudge children to make better choices about what they eat without forcing them,” noting that attempts to mandate healthy eating are usually unsuccessful, since students are more inclined to eat what they choose for themselves.

Simple changes, like moving a salad bar to a convenient location near the cash register or placing fruit in an attractive basket at eye-level, can be “shockingly effective” at encouraging students to make an apple or some green beans part of their lunch, Just said. These alterations increased consumption of the fruits and vegetables by more than 200 percent in the Corning City School District, he added.

The researchers also use data from schools in Utah, Connecticut and Wisconsin, and hope to start another study in Alabama.

If all goes well, Just said, the program will continue to grow and expand, gathering more information and involving more students, especially within the School of Applied Economics and Management. He called the recent USDA award an “inaugural grant” and said he hopes more support will be forthcoming as behavioral economics emerges as an important field of study.

In a statement on Tuesday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack expressed hope that the forthcoming research will improve the health of young people around the country.

“Findings from this emerging field of research — behavioral economics — could lead to significant improvements in the diets of millions of children across America,” Vilsack’s statement said.

Original Author: Eliza LaJoie