In reading a NPR report on getting children to actually eat these healthier school lunches, I came across a term that piqued my curiosity: libertarian parternalism.
The University of Chicago faculty blog defines explains libertarian parternalism as:
The basic idea is that private and public institutions might nudge people in directions that will make their lives go better, without eliminating freedom of choice. The paternalism consists in the nudge; the libertarianism consists in the insistence on freedom, and on imposing little or no cost on those who seek to go their own way.
New nutritional guidelines, announced in 2012, require public school lunchrooms to offer more whole grains, low-fat milk, and fewer starchy sides like French fries. But short of stationing grandmothers in every cafeteria, how do you ensure that students actually eat the fruits and veggies they’re being offered?
A minor lunchroom makeover could make a big difference, says Andrew Hanks, a behavioral economist at Cornell University.
In a study published online by TheJournal of Pediatrics, Hanks and his colleagues David Just and Brian Wansink, at the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs, demonstrate that small, simple changes in presentation and layout can have a large impact on how — and what — students eat.
Wheel the salad bar into a high-traffic area, for example, and place an attractive fruit basket next to the register. Stock juice popsicles alongside ice cream in the freezer, and have the cafeteria staff gently “up-sell” vegetables – for example, by asking, “Would you like to try an apple?”
“The whole premise behind this is that, as consumers, we have behavioral biases that lead us to make certain decisions,” Hanks tells The Salt. “If a food is more convenient to reach in a lunch line or store, “we’ll probably take that over a close substitute. If the cookies are easier to reach than the apple, you’re probably going to take the cookie.”
Similar product-placement tactics have proved effective at getting grocery store shoppers to buy more produce. And amid rising childhood obesity rates, there’s been a surge of interest in recent years in applying lessons from behavioral economics to getting kids to make better choices in the lunchroom.
Hanks spent two weeks in New York junior high schools, observing students’ dietary choices before and after what he calls a “smart lunchroom” makeover. The makeover required three hours and cost less than $50.
Standing at the register and near the garbage cans, Hanks counted some 3,700 trays, noting both what students piled on their plates and what they actually consumed. “You’ve got to get your hands dirty, literally,” says Hanks. “Our mantra is, ‘It’s not nutrition until it’s eaten.'”
In a “smart” lunchroom, the authors found, students were 13 to 23 percent more likely to take a fruit or vegetable, and 10 to 15 percent more likely to eat the whole thing.
“What’s important is that kids are taking things of their own volition,” Hanks says. “It’s going to increase the amount they’re actually eating.”
This is a tactic behavioral economists call “libertarian paternalism,” a term coined in the early aughts by the University of Chicago’s Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Impel students to take boiled spinach by slopping it on their plates, and it’ll be scraped straight into the garbage. Encourage them to take the veggie with a subtle nudge — no ultimatum, no “Because I say so” — and chances are they’ll actually eat it.
“The idea of libertarian paternalism is that we’re not forcing behavior,” says Hanks. “We’re not restricting choices or making kids have carrots on their trays. We’re preserving choice but guiding better behavior.”
Instead of the lunch lady saying you have to take some carrot sticks, children chose on their own because the carrot sticks look more attractive than the tater tots. When children own the choice, they are more willing to actually eat the food on their tray. This premise makes sense, but why even offer anything but healthy choices?
I remember a nurse practitioner’s presentation on nutrition at a preschool consortium I attended. She mentioned parents complaining their children only wanted to eat potato chips. She asked the parent, “Who does the grocery shopping? Who buys the potato chips?”
If you fill your home (and school lunchroom) with only healthy choices, then there can be no wrong choice. No need to place healthy food choices strategically to influence behavior…I don’t understand why we serve crappy food anyways. Oh yea, it’s the budget. Artificial ingredients and preservatives make food cheaper. I don’t get that.
The problem is that the semblance of choice in libertarian paternalism is an illusion. Choice remains unexercised, because individuals do not consciously think through their decision. If their choices can be directed, is this not paternalism plain and simple, rendered more sinister because individuals are unaware that they are being nudged, and cannot raise their guard?…
More generally, the flaw in some forms of libertarian paternalism is that the free choice that it appears to offer leaves the paternalism largely unconstrained. Would it not be far better to force conscious choice in order to limit the consequences of paternalistic mistakes?
One of my early parenting lessons was about choice. Instead of telling children want to do, offer them a choice, but be sure you are happy with both choices. This is what I think needs to happen in school lunches. We don’t need to manipulate children into choosing healthy food over junk, rather we just need to make sure that the only choices children have are choices we can live with, or more importantly their bodies can live with in health.
Image: Students Outdoors Eating Lunch on Bigstock