Introduction: Changing food choice architecture in school cafeterias through behavioral economics may increase student selection and consumption of healthy foods. However, most research assesses the effects of short-term interventions. We evaluated a year-long choice architecture intervention implemented by school food service staff.
Methods: Food service staff from 6 secondary schools in one school district received training and support to implement behavioral economics strategies in their cafeterias to promote student selection of fruit, vegetables, and low-fat white milk. We compared student selection and consumption of these foods in the intervention schools to 5 comparison schools in the same district on the basis of visual assessment of plate waste. We applied a difference-in-differences approach to estimate intervention effect.
Results: Data for 902 students were assessed at baseline, and data for 1,407 were assessed at follow-up. In fully adjusted analyses for all students, there were significantly greater absolute increases in the proportions of intervention school students selecting any fruit, including (0.09) and excluding (0.16) juice, and students selected more fruit items including (0.21) and excluding (0.17) juice. The absolute increase in proportion of intervention students consuming fruit excluding juice (0.14) was significantly greater. However, in some analyses, fewer intervention students who selected fruits or vegetables ate them, or they ate fewer of them. There were no intervention effects for vegetables or low-fat white milk.
Conclusion: Our results indicate that behavioral economics-based choice architecture can promote student selection of healthy foods, but they raise questions about whether it increases their consumption.