Hide the chocolate milk behind the plain milk. Get those apples and oranges out of stainless steel bins and into pretty baskets. Cash only for desserts.
These subtle moves can entice kids to make healthier choices in school lunch lines, studies show. Food marketers have long used similar tricks. Now the government wants in on the act.
The Department of Agriculture is giving $2 million to food behavior scientists to find ways to improve kids' use of the federal school lunch program and fight childhood obesity.
About one-third of children and teens are obese or overweight. Bans on soda and junk food have backfired in some places. Some students have abandoned school meal programs that tried to force-feed healthy choices. When one district put fruit on every lunch tray, most of it ended up in the garbage.
So schools want to entice kids to choose healthy foods themselves, figuring they'll be more likely to eat it.
"It's not nutrition till it's eaten," said Joanne Guthrie, a USDA researcher who announced the grants. The initiative will include creation of a child nutrition center at Cornell University, which has long led such research.
Some tricks already judged a success by Cornell researchers: Keep ice cream in freezers without glass display tops so the treats are out of sight. Move salad bars next to the checkout registers, where students linger to pay. Create make-your-own sandwich bars.
School lunch and breakfast programs provide free or subsidized meals to more than 31 million schoolchildren each day.
Cornell scientists Brian Wansink and David Just will get $1 million to establish the center. Fourteen research sites across the country (none in Florida) will share the rest.
Christine Wallace, food service director for Corning City School District near Cornell University, met Wansink a few years ago and invited him to use her 14 schools as a lab.
After studies by Wansink, they renamed some foods in the elementary schools — "X-ray vision carrots" and "lean, mean green beans" — and watched consumption rise. Cafeteria workers got more involved, asking, "Would you rather have green beans or carrots today?" instead of waiting for a request.
Asking, "Do you want a salad with that?" on pizza day at a high school raised salad consumption 30 percent, Wansink said.