With the spotlight on childhood obesity, schools across the country are looking for ways to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables. In New York, the Department of Health decided to do some research. How much, it wondered, would a school need to cut its prices for apples, oranges and bananas to increase sales by 5 percent over a year?
Brian Wansink was called in to play detective. But the director of Cornell's Food and Brand Lab soon discovered he had been hired to answer the wrong question. Price wasn't the problem. It was the presentation.
In the school cafeterias Wansink surveyed, whole fruits were displayed in steel bins in dimly lighted areas of the lunch line. Wansink went to discount store T.J. Maxx and bought a cheap wire fruit rack. He found an extra desk lamp, which he used to shine on the fruit. “Sales of fruit in one school went up 54 percent. Not in a semester: by the end of the second week,” Wansink said. “It would have gone up faster, but they kept running out of fruit.”
The debate about how to fix school lunch has, until now, focused largely on what is sold in schools: Public health advocates argue that french fries and cookies should be banned, and some schools have done just that. Now, researchers such as Wansink are turning their attention to how school food is sold and to whether marketing and incentives can help fight obesity, often at little or no cost.