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Do you struggle with picky eaters at home? Multiply your woes by hundreds or even thousands and you have a school cafeteria. Don't worry. Emoticons to the rescue!
Providing lunch to school children has become a multi-front battle among nutrition science, public policy, economics, and politics. And the children are losing.
Michael Pollan says most school lunch programs in the U.S. are a scandal. They are not designed to feed growing children. They are, he says, a "disposal system for surplus agricultural commodities."
The government buys excess crops from industrial farms and dumps them on schools. The highly processed foods are high in bad fats, carbohydrates, and sodium. School cafeterias no longer have kitchens. They have huge microwave ovens to defrost frozen foods.
And childhood obesity continues to grow.
What to do? Researchers from the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center blame the kids for making poor choices. In a new study they started with the premise that: "Choosing poor-quality foods in school cafeterias is a risk factor for childhood obesity." Talk about blaming the victim.
It might be more accurate to say that "poor-quality food in school cafeterias is a risk factor for childhood obesity."
Instead of upgrading a poor-quality menu, they wanted to find ways to encourage children to make better choices from the terrible food in the cafeteria line.
In particular, they wanted to see if they could get more kids to choose plain white pasteurized fat-free milk, a highly processed drink, over pasteurized chocolate milk, a highly processed drink with added sugar. What a choice. In fact, many experts argue convincingly that pasteurized milk speeds death, heart disease, cancer, and bone fractures. Others say that dairy of any sort is a poor health choice for a large segment of the population.
The purpose of the new study was to determine whether displaying green happy faces next to the white milk would increase those sales and decrease the chocolate milk sales. The experiment took place in an inner city elementary school with 297 children in grades Kindergarten through 6.
It worked – sort of. The results published in the journal Clinical Therapeutics[i] showed white milk sales increased by 141% from 7.4% of the students to 17.9%. Chocolate milk sales went down from 86.5% to 77.1% of students. In other words, the "bad" food choice was still made by over three quarters of the children.
The green smiley face emoticons were also placed in front of an entrée with whole grains, as well as some fruits, vegetables, and a salad bar.
There it didn't do so well. The green emoticon had no effect on the entrée or the fruit. It boosted vegetable purchases a fraction from an average of .70 vegetables per student to .90 vegetables.
The study didn't go beyond the cash register. There was no word on whether any of those vegetables or that skim white milk was consumed.
But another recent study suggests the chances are pretty high that the emoticon-endorsed foods went straight into the trash can.
Researchers from the University of Vermont used digital images at two northeastern elementary schools to track what kids actually ate from the cafeteria line. They took photos of almost 500 students' lunch trays before and after they exited the lunch line.
Sadly the results showed that while students put more fruits and vegetables on their trays, they actually ate fewer of them. In fact, waste increased by about 35 per cent. The lead author said, "It was heartbreaking to see so many students toss fruits like apples into the trash right after exiting the lunch line."
They suggested that cafeterias could increase fruit and vegetable consumption in school lunch programs by:
- Cutting up vegetables and serving them with dip or mixing them in with other parts of the meal
- Slicing fruits like oranges or apples, rather than serving them whole
- Adopt Farm-to-School programs and school gardens to encourage fruit and vegetable consumption
- Encourage fruit and vegetable consumption in the home, which could carry over to school
In an earlier study published in the Journal of Child Nutrition and Management, some of the same researchers looked at what types of fruits and vegetables children selected when they were free to choose. Not surprisingly they found that children prefer processed fruits and vegetables such as the tomato paste on pizza, or 100 percent fruit juice rather than whole fruit.[ii]
Emoticons have their work cut out for them.
[i] Siegel RM et al. "Emoticon use Increases Plain Milk and Vegetable Purchase in a School Cafeteria without Adversely Affecting Total Milk Purchase." Clin Ther. 2015 Aug 11. pii: S0149-2918(15)00956-X. doi: 10.1016/j.clinthera.2015.07.016.