The (Green) Lunch Revolution: why forcing kids to eat healthy doesn’t work

The Healthy Lunch campaign to deliver more nutritious meals in schools around the country has sparked a national debate over the role of government in dictating lifestyle choices for the nation’s public school students. Yet the movement for healthier, greener lifestyles did not begin with the US government, nor does it end there. In fact, there have been a number of drivers over the past few years that have pushed us, kicking and screaming, to this point of revolution as a nation.

We could point to the obesity crisis as a catalyst for national debate about the state of our nation’s food choices. Although the rates of obesity and related diseases like diabetes have skyrocketed in recent decades, shining a spotlight on the need for quick solutions that would provide some relief for our overburdened national health care systems, other factors have been driving the push for healthier lunches. These include media coverage of the obesity and diabetes epidemics in this country, the rise of celebrity chefs, the farm-to table movement, consumer pressure, and the work of activists to turn the tide towards healthier living.

At present, the public face of the Healthy Lunch movement remains the Obama Administration, especially First Lady Michelle Obama. Early in the administration’s tenure, the First Lady’s organic garden on the White House Lawn made for feel-good PR. Later, the efforts of high profile politicians like New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who tried to ban the sale of large sodas and sugary drinks, brought mixed reactions from the public. These efforts, at least in public perceptions, all fed into (or from) Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign and its “Eat Healthy” Component, where we began to see the Healthy School Lunches initiative in public schools really take off.

That was in 2010. That same year, the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act passed into law, allowing the USDA to make reforms to the nation’s school lunch programs for the first time in several decades. Initially, it was only the usual critics and Obama haters who cried foul and accused the First Lady of trying to dictate how, and what, we eat in this country. By the fall of 2014, as students nationwide began their annual migration back to school, there was a firestorm of protest from students who were unhappy with the school lunch fare being offered. As a flurry of media reports detailed, the hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama went viral in the Twitterverse, with kids around the country attaching pictures of the unappetizing meals (some unrecognizable as food) that they were being served in their schools.

The pundits, bloggers, super commenters and miffed parents were not far behind in their criticisms. Some characterized the Healthy School Lunches initiative as busybody progressive liberalism. Others, citing the results of studies like the one conducted in 2012-13 on public schoolchildren in the Northeast and published a few days ago, lamented the food waste that was routinely occurring as students just trashed the healthy components of their lunches.

The White House has responded to critiques like these in measured, unequivocal tones: in time, kids would accept these changes. One year may not be enough to tell whether or not this is true, but recently, there have been a set of studies that offer a fresh perspective (pun intended) on making kids eat more nutritious fare, whether at school or at home. These studies all point to the same conclusion: forcing kids to eat healthy just doesn’t work.

Tricking them into eating healthy, however, is another matter altogether.

Here are some of the apparently successful strategies being suggested, some of which may work for your family (or school) too:

1.      Presentation. Let’s face it. No one wants to eat a bowl of glop or a slab of mystery meat, even (and maybe especially) if it is good for you. As several commenters on this blog post have pointed out, blaming Mrs. Obama for such unappetizing food misses the mark. Blame the school administration and the food distributors. Better yet, blame the cooks, who probably don’t make much of an effort to create aesthetically pleasing choices.

Appearances matter, especially to kids.

While we may never, as a society, reach the level of the lunchroom culinary aesthetics demonstrated by the French or the Japanese, we can do a lot better than mush and mystery meat.

2.      Marketing and Psychology. The most successful marketers play to the demonstrated psychology of their customers, not to their own biases. In other words, you should consider the ways people actually think, feel, and perceive food, not the ways you think people should think, feel, and perceive food, and act accordingly. For example,

 2A. since kids of all ages look up to celebrities or popular cartoon characters or superheroes, use them to market healthy foods. I’m sure anyone with a prepubescent child can relate to having been harassed by said child into buying the more expensive, sugary, overprocessed foods fronted by Elsa and Anna, Super Mario Brothers, or the Minions. Some have suggested using more celebrity chefs to market healthy school lunches. Yes, Chef Jamie Oliver has enjoyed a good bit of success in promoting healthy lunchtime meals in public schools. But get Beyonce and Jay-Z or Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift to start hawking hummus & crackers, steamed string beans, or baked chicken strips wrapped in pita bread and you can bet more kids will start to like those things (or at least they’ll stop finding them gross).

2B. one book, Slim by Design (2014), written by Professor Brian Wansink, Director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, suggests redesigning the lunchroom and even the lunch trays so that kids end up choosing healthy food on their own. Instead of changing menus, the Professor and his colleagues focus on changing kids’ perceptions of the food. By making the healthy food more visually appealing and easier to access in the lunchroom, and the unhealthy food less so, kids will presumably choose the healthier fare. Professor Wansink’s Smarter Lunchrooms Movement has a number of other suggestions that seem to be paying off, which you can read more about here.

3.      Vested interest. Another interesting suggestion has been to give kids some control (and/or input) into their school lunch choices. As I noted in an earlier blog post, taking field trips to local farms, and letting the little ones pick the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants that we grow each year on our deck made these things seem much less yucky to my kids. And now they like eating them because they’ve developed a vested interest in doing so. Letting kids do taste tests in their schools, or vote for their favorites among a list of choices, helps them develop an interest in, and taste for, some healthy foods. This is what participants did in a veggie experiment conducted by the folks in charge of the school lunch program at the DC Central Kitchen, a nonprofit organization that delivers meals to eight schools in the District.

4.      Reprogramming. The last suggestion may be the most interesting and promising of all: train kids’ brains to prefer healthy over junk foods. This doesn’t mean repeatedly showing kids pictures of healthy school lunches from around the world (although yes, they are very pleasing images). Instead, it means taking steps to “reprogram” kids over the long term. Research on the brain that emerged from Tufts University and was published in September 2014 in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes suggests that it’s possible to recondition the (adult) brain to prefer healthy over junk foods. In the study, this task was accomplished through a combined regimen of counseling (with instruction on portion control, dietary targets, and meal planning) and constant exposure to healthy foods. The end result? Study participants actually craved the healthy foods over the junk.

While the verdict may still be out on the long-term sustainability of the Green Lunch movement, the evidence seems promising. What is clear, though, is that if parents, along with their children’s schools, make the effort to promote healthier eating in our nations’ homes and schools, we can turn the tide against the epidemic of obesity and poor health that threatens to create a generation of kids who will not live as long – or as well -- as their parents did.