We hear about child obesity and nutrition problems among young people frequently. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2008, more than a third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese, and the prevalence of obesity among children tripled from 1980 to 2008. In New York state, 33 percent of children ages 10 to 17 are obese or overweight, according to federal data.
Schools have tried to address this problem by offering nutritious food in the lunchroom. One approach has been to ban food that lacks nutritious value. But Cornell University food experts say removing junk food from cafeterias can backfire, resulting in students skipping lunch or bringing their own snacks.
Instead, lunchrooms can become "smarter" by making changes in the way the food is organized and presented.
The Cornell Center for Behaviorial Economics in Child Nutrition has been introducing schools to a "smarter lunchroom movement." U.S. Rep. Bill Owens recently pointed out schools in Saranac Lake and Plattsburgh were among those that participated in pilot studies to promote healthier eating habits in schools.
The ideas in the "smarter lunchrooms" initiative would cost schools little or nothing to put into practice.
The initiative encourages schools to make "environmental changes" that can "nudge" students to make healthier lunch choices.
Among the suggestions:
Give healthy food choices catchy, descriptive names, such as "creamy corn" instead of "corn" or "oven roasted lemony broccoli bites" instead of broccoli, or, in the winter, "cauliflower snowballs" instead of simply cauliflower.
Place nutritious foods such as broccoli at the beginning of the lunch line.
Put apples and oranges in an attractive fruit bowl rather than a stainless-steel pan.
Prepackage healthy items into a "grab-and-go" full meal.
Put healthy snacks such as fruit and carrot sticks next to the cash register and put prepackaged, unhealthy snacks behind the counter where students would have to ask for them.
Require or encourage the use of cafeteria trays to increase vegetable consumption.
Decrease the size of cereal bowls from 18 ounces to 14 ounces.
Move chocolate milk behind the plain milk so students will buy more plain milk.
Keep ice cream in a freezer with a closed, opaque top.
Put a salad bar in front of the checkout register. Cafeteria workers should ask each child, "Do you want a salad?"
Forbid the use of lunch tickets for desserts to encourage students to eat more fruit.
Create a speedy "healthy express" checkout for students not buying desserts and chips.
Local schools that haven't adopted some of these ideas may want to rethink their approach. We encourage our school administrators to check out www.smarterlunchrooms.org to gather some ideas and find out how they could participate in the Cornell effort.