WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week announced a series of grants for researchers who are using behavioral economics in a novel approach toward improving childhood nutrition.
The awards, totaling $2 million, will help establish the Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs at Cornell University, and fund 14 other research projects in states throughout the U.S.
A USDA announcement noted that most schools are already taking steps to offer healthier meals, and to educate students about the importance of a healthy diet. But, the field of behavioral economics indicates that even when people have the best intentions, when they actually choose what to eat or how much to eat, they still may be unconsciously influenced by “how offers are framed, by various incentives, and by such factors as visual cues.”
Retailers familiar with basic planograms and store traffic patterns will probably not be surprised at some of the findings that researchers are already touting. Much of it sounds like merchandising 101. For example, in school cafeterias, students are more apt to pick up apples and oranges when they are merchandised in baskets, rather than stainless steel trays. And, more students eat salads when salad bars are moved closer to lunch line checkout registers. To reduce consumption of ice cream, all you have to do is put it in freezers that don't have see-through doors or display tops.
“Findings from this emerging field of research — behavioral economics — could lead to significant improvements in the diets of millions of children across America,” Vilsack said in the release.