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It's Not Nutrition Until It's Eaten: Behavior Change is the Key to Nutrition

Last Published: 08/26/2015
Tony Craddock

The 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) has paved the way for healthy changes to school meals. While this legislation is the first step to making nutrition a reality for more children, increased access to healthy foods does not guarantee that students will eat it. The goal of the Cornell University-based Smarter Lunchrooms Movement is to understand how children make decisions so that healthier foods offered in schools make it into their stomachs.

Established in 2009, The Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs (also known as the B.E.N. Center) started the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement to empower school lunchrooms with evidence-based tools that improve child eating behaviors and in turn improve childhood nutrition. The B.E.N. Center provides the research that fuels the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement's expertise. Much of their research is funded by the USDA Economic and Research Service. The Center also has a Small Grants Program which helps to fund behavior-focused school nutrition research projects at other institutions such as Yale, University of Minnesota, and Brigham Young University

A "smarter lunchroom" is one that encourages students to eat nutritious food through environmental cues that unconsciously impact our decision making. Just as fast food franchises are crafty in making us crave their product without even knowing it, our school cafeterias must take the same approach to promoting healthy foods. For example, placing a trash receptacle next to the food ordering area is a common mistake in a cafeteria, but this same error is unlikely in a McDonald's.

Smarter lunchroom tips

The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement prides itself on offering low cost/no-cost best practices that will transform an average lunchroom into one that promotes nutrition in a unique way. On the website, there is a Best Practices Matrix with easy-to-understand solutions for a variety of common lunchroom problems. What's more, the Matrix delves into greater detail, outlining why the solutions work, how to implement them, and the cost and time necessary to realize the changes.

Check out the New York Times interactive healthier lunch line.

This groundbreaking research is also symbolic in a historical context because Cornell is a land-grand university, founded under the Morill Land Grant Act of 1862.

Land-grant universities are uniquely charged with the mission of educating, and conducting applied research and outreach for the benefit of the state's citizens. The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement is currently working with the USDA Food and Nutrition Service to promote healthy school meal changes under the HHFKA. In fact, several Smarter Lunchrooms techniques are now optional criteria for the HealthierUS School Challenge (HUSSC). Policy makes the provisions for healthy food to be in the lunchroom, but it is behavior, the choice to eat the food, which ultimately makes it nutritious. As they like to say in the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, "It's not nutrition until it's eaten."