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Are Pictures On School Lunch Trays Perfect For Increasing Consumption?

A research letter published online at The Journal of the American Medical Association titled, Photographs in Lunch Tray Compartments and Vegetable Consumption Among Children in Elementary School Cafeterias, reports that research conducted by an interdisciplinary team at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, found the following:

Placing photographs in cafeteria lunch trays requires no special training and incurs minimal costs and labor (in this study, about $3 and 20 minutes per 100 trays), but was associated with an increase in vegetable consumption within the range of those found in more expensive interventions, including those that require multiple classroom sessions with trained instructors or parent involvement.The number of students taking vegetables and the amounts consumed, however, remained low and did not yet meet government recommendations. In addition, these findings were obtained from just 2 days in 1 school, so further research is needed to assess how well the effects generalize to other settings and persist over time.

Basically, what the researchers found was that with elementary school children simply putting decals of carrots and green beans on their trays suggesting that this was the proper place for these foods led to a substantial increase in the number of children who placed these items on their tray. Green beans went from 6.3% to 14.8%, and carrots went from 11.6% to 36.8%. Although green bean consumption per child who took green beans did not increase, carrot consumption per child who took carrots increased significantly. In any case, the total amount of green beans and carrots consumed zoomed as so many more children took the items.

Obviously, not too much can be drawn from one study done in one school, one time. It is very possible that if the decals are done daily, they may become background noise and their impact may dissipate.

Still, it is nice to have researchers studying consumption, not just how much is served. These researchers actually went through the uneaten carrots to weigh them and subtract that from the amount served to calculate consumption.

It is also interesting that such a small intervention could have such a significant impact on consumption. Perhaps changing the decals each day to represent the day’s vegetable could keep interest, and the consumption effect, high.  In any case, this study suggests that if we get a salad bar in a school and see a bump in consumption, with other interventions we might be able to make students more likely to take items off the salad bar and more likely to consume them, thus to achieve a second bump in consumption.

The industry now has an organization, the Center for Produce Safety, that funds research to promote safety. What about a similar institute to support research as to how to facilitate increased consumption?       

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