Libertarian paternalism and school lunches: Guiding healthier behavior while preserving choices

Feb. 26, 2013 — The term ‘libertarian paternalism’ is a peculiar phrase because it invokes feelings about two seemingly contradictory philosophies. Yet, as a principle of the behavioral sciences, this phrase actually implies gentle guidance, without force.

Recently, the USDA passed regulations designed to make school lunches more nutritious. Schools participating in the National School Lunch Program are required to increase whole grain offerings, cap the fat of milk at 1% for white and non-fat for flavored, and ensure that students take either a fruit or a vegetable with their purchased lunch. Unfortunately, forcing behavior jeopardizes the potential to accomplish the most important goal of improving children’s diets. After all, it’s not nutrition until it’s eaten!

Staying true to the meaning of libertarian paternalism, Cornell University researchers Andrew Hanks, David Just and Brian Wansink conducted a field study in two of high school cafeterias to test whether low- and no-cost environmental changes could lead children to take and eat healthier foods. Under the name, "Smarter Lunchrooms Makeover," they tested multiple small changes such as making fruits and vegetables more attractive, convenient, and normative, all simple applications of libertarian paternalism.

Make the Fruit More Visible

After the "makeover" was implemented, students were 13% more likely to take fruits and 23% more likely to take vegetables. These are very encouraging results, but selection is only half of the battle!

To check the consumption of the fruits and vegetables selected, Hanks, Just and Wansink recorded whether food items were completely eaten, half eaten or not eaten at all. They found that students not only took more fruits and vegetables, but actual consumption increased by 18% for fruits and by 25% for vegetables. They also found that after the makeover the percentage of kids eating a whole serving of fruit increased by 16% and by 10% for vegetables.

These small changes, based on the principle of libertarian paternalism, cost three hours of time and less than $50 to implement. Evidence from the results demonstrates that this "makeover" not only preserves choice but also can ‘nudge’ children toward healthier behaviors that they can carry with them into adulthood, contributing to the fight against current childhood obesity trends!

Furthermore, these simple changes could also be effective in the cafeterias of other organizations, including hospitals, companies, and retirement homes, as well as within the walls of your very own home.