A well-lit apple is worth 30 grand: Behavioral economics and the USDA

Credit: Giantsqurl, Flickr

Any savvy interior designer knows lighting is everything. But can the right illumination convince kids to eat more vegetables?

Ann Ferris, a public health and health policy professor at the University of Connecticut in Farmington, thinks it might. In October she received a $30,000 USDA grant to fund her project, called “Drawing Attention to Healthy Choices with Lighting.”

The study, which Ferris and her team will implement over a four-month period, will manipulate cafeteria lighting in two Connecticut middle schools. Lighting will be adjusted to emphasize fruits and vegetables, and researchers will assess whether the changes affect student food choice behavior.

The project uses behavioral economics, a field that examines the reasons behind decision-making, and how the presentation of an option, not just its relative valence, affects the choices people make.

Behavior economics isn’t new, but the field didn’t start to take off until the 1990s, according to David Laibson, an economics professor at Harvard. Now behavioral economics is trendy, he says, a claim that is borne out by the grants awarded by the USDA this year.

In October the agency introduced a series of special awards that would form the foundation of a USDA research program that uses behavioral economics to study children’s nutrition programs. The agency awarded $2 million to 15 projects, including $1 million to the newly established Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs.

Ferris’s project has a good shot at getting kids to eat more fruits and vegetables, based on the success of similar initiatives. The Cornell researchers, for example, found that when ice cream treats are stored in freezers with closed, non-transparent tops, students eat fewer of them.

The Cornell team also found:

  • students were more likely to eat healthy foods when such foods had descriptive names, such as “creamy corn” instead of “corn”
  • students ate more salad and fruit when salad bars were moved to bottleneck areas in cafeterias, near checkout registers, and apples and oranges were displayed in well-lit, attractive baskets
  • they were more likely to buy plain milk when chocolate milk was hidden behind plain milk
  • they were less likely to buy desserts when treats were cash-only
  • they were more likely to select a salad if asked, “Do you want a salad with that?” on school pizza day

(For more strategies, check out this lunchroom redesign graphic from the New York Times.)

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