In 2009 David Pittman, associate professor of psychology at Wofford College, in Spartanburg, S.C., launched Healthy Eating Decisions, a program designed to help students make better choices at lunch. There are currently 16 elementary schools using the program, which is offered free of charge. FSD talked with Pittman, the program director, to find out how the it works.
It originated when I was a part of a consortium of community groups that was meeting as part of a countywide obesity task force in Spartanburg. There was a presentation given to the group by one of the foodservice providers in our area, Chartwells, talking about the federal guidelines and mandates that they had to meet. One of the things that came out of that was that, particularly at the elementary school level, children were being offered choices but not being given direction as to what the best choice was on any given day. We created our program to help identify, out of the possible choices available, the healthy combination.
We partnered with a licensed nutritionist to come up with nutritional parameters based on federal guidelines, while trying to minimize the amount of calories and fat in a given offering. We took a computer program where we could input all of the nutritional information for the entrées, side items and beverages being served on a given day. The computer will form all possible combinations of those items and identify the ones that fit within the dietary criteria. Of those options it will select the combination that has the least calories from fat and overall calories to identify the best option.
We really wanted to make sure that we were providing a guideline for the kids and not changing what the foodservice providers were offering. The program was designed to fall in with what schools were already doing.
The other part of the program was we wanted to find a way to encourage students to make the healthy choice. We came up with positive reinforcement. We allow the students to ring a call bell in the cafeteria when they choose all the items on the healthy choice menu for that day. We did a couple of research projects where we measured what students were choosing before our program started and then after they implemented it and we found that this bell-ringing really motivated students. It gives them a moment of attention, and we think that it instills some positive self-esteem and recognizes them for making a healthy choice. It also reminds everyone else in the cafeteria who brought their lunch or didn’t chose the healthy items that some of their classmates did and they have the opportunity to participate in the program.
Different schools have approached it in different ways. Some do it during morning announcements. Teachers sometimes announce it. Menus are posted in the lunch line. Others have marked the individual items so students can see them when they go through the line. I would imagine the most effective strategy is marking the items on the lunch line, although that’s probably the most time consuming.
Since implementing the program, have schools made changes to get more healthy options?
It’s hard to quantify, but we have had several reports that foodservice providers have made changes to what they are providing, particularly in regard to the milk. One emphasis of the program is to get kids drinking the nonflavored milk. In one school district demand for strawberry milk dropped so low that they no longer offer it. They had to increase the order of regular milk. There are some changes the foodservice providers have to make because the kids have adjusted their eating habits.
The major hurdle we’ve found is getting the nutritional information for what the schools are serving to enter into our database. Schools that don’t already use a nutritional analysis system have been a little bit problematic.
Schools, in general, are interested in reducing childhood obesity. We are not blaming the school system. They are not the reason we have a childhood obesity epidemic. The schools are an institution where we can educate kids about making healthy eating decisions and, we hope, that will transfer to outside the school environment.