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Improving students' choices in the lunchroom without restricting their options: that is one of the main goals of Cornell University's Center for Behavioral Economics in Childhood Nutrition Programs (BEN Center). Certainly, educating students about the importance of good nutrition and making nutritious options attractive, affordable and convenient are key steps. But the BEN Center research team seeks to develop new strategies for steering children away from unhealthy a la carte items, such as cookies and ice cream.
To better understand students' lunchtime choices, Post-Doctoral Research Associate Andrew Hanks and Professors David Just and Brian Wansink conducted an observational study in two high schools where they tracked menu offerings, purchase records and food waste over the course of several months. Their data analysis uncovered a phenomenon which they call 'trigger foods.' What this means is that the availability of a particular food item can influence or 'trigger' the selection of other foods on the menu ' even when that particular item is not chosen.
For example, it was found that the number of unhealthy a la carte items sold on a given day varied by what type of side dish was offered even among students who didn't take a side dish. Ice cream, cookies and other sweet treats were less popular on days when bananas and green beans were served, but they were more popular on days when celery, apple sauce and fruit cocktail were served. 'By how much?' you may wonder. Bananas made ice cream 11-16% less popular. Fruit cocktail made Little Debbie snacks 7-9% more popular. While the researchers emphasize that these numbers are specific to the schools that were studied, they believe the phenomenon of 'trigger foods' may take place in all cafeterias. Simply by appearing on the lunch line, but not necessarily being chosen themselves, 'trigger foods' might exercise a subtle influence over the other foods that students do choose.
• Download paper from the SSRN (the Social Science Research Network)
Hanks, Andrew, David Just, and Brian Wansink (2012). Trigger Foods: The Influence of ‘Irrelevant’ Alternatives in School Lunchrooms. Agricultural and Resource Economics Review 41(1):114-123.
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