The Conundrum of Competitive Foods: 3 Ways to Maintain Revenue and Promote Healthier Options


Food service directors have a tall order to fulfill: they must ensure the hundreds, or even thousands, of students they feed receive meals meeting specific nutrition standards, maintain participation in the school lunch program as well as promote healthier food choices while generating enough revenue to cover costs.  In addition, food service directors wonder how they should respond once the competitive food regulations become effective.  There is concern that promoting healthier options will lead to decreased revenues as students no longer purchase competitive foods.  While sales of competitive foods in school lunchrooms typically provide a substantial amount of income, it is possible for cafeteria staff to promote nutritious options without jeopardizing the bottom line.  Although there is not a one-size-fits-all solution, there are behavioral principles that can help guide actions.

First, encourage participation in the school lunch program through providing grab-and-go meals wherever possible.  Students respond well to convenient options.[1]  Grab-and-go meals that qualify for reimbursement can replace purchases of calorically dense, competitive food options.

Second, make sure students realize that fruits, vegetables, milk, and other nutritionally dense options appear to be the most obvious choice.[2]  For example, in the beverage cooler, place milk and bottled water in front of the sugary drinks.  Place fruit at eye level in the stands where the cookies, chips, and other salty or sugary snack items were once available.  If this fruit is pre-sliced for the students, they will be drawn to the option.[3]  If there is an ice cream cooler in the cafeteria with a transparent door, cover the door with contact paper.  Without the visual stimulus, fewer students will take ice cream.

Finally, offer combinations that encourage healthier choices.  For example, instead of offering three cookies for a discounted price, offer one cookie and a carton of white-milk at a discounted price.  Additional combinations can include bottled water with a bag of chips, fruit and yogurt parfaits, and celery sticks with peanut butter.  Even though every item in the combination may not be healthy, encouraging healthier choices through a price discount can lead to more nutritious choices.[4] This also has the potential to increase selection and consumption of foods that may not be taken as often.


Andrew S. Hanks, Ph.D., Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs

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[1] Hanks, A.S., D.R. Just, L.E. Smith and B. Wansink (2012). Healthy Convenience: Nudging Students Toward Healthier Choices in the Lunchroom. Journal of Public Health, 34(3):370-376.

[2] Hanks, A.S., D.R., Just, and B. Wansink (2013). Smarter Lunchrooms Can Address New School Lunchroom Guidelines and Childhood ObesityJournal of Pediatrics, 162: 867-869.

[3] Wansink, B., D.R., Just, A.S. Hanks, and L.E. Smith (2013). Pre-Sliced Fruit in School Cafeterias: Children’s Selection and Intake. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, in press.

[4] Just, D.R. and Price, J. (2012). Using Incentives to Encourage Healthy Eating in Children. Journal of Human Resources, in press.

Image via Flickr: DC Central Kitchen  cc2.0