Food Feng Shui: How moving groceries can create healthier choices

In middle and high school, I can remember few healthy lunch choices.  At first, I thought that this could be due to lack of availability, but it turns out that maybe I was just unaware of my options because of where they were in relation to my field of vision.  As a hungry adolescent, I was probably only concerned with what was fast, within immediate reach, and had the highest cost-to-taste-ratio.  Sure, it was difficult to resist the high fat and sugar items, like chips, cinnamon rolls and pizza, but even after I had made a concerted effort to change my habits, I still found it hard to escape the onslaught of bright packaging and glistening slices of pepperoni under the cafeteria heat lamps.  Where the devil were the apples?  I knew they were hiding somewhere.

30 million children are fed by the National School Lunch Program each year, and administrators are trying to figure out how to guide their students toward making healthier eating decisions.  Once more nutritious food is introduced into the cafeteria, the battle for the lunchroom tray is still far from over.  Kids, especially teenagers, don’t generally like to be told what to do (I think most of us can recall some cringe-worthy photos of unfortunate fashion choices during our younger days).  Some schools have seen cafeteria room attendance drop when the menu makes a shift to more wholesome fare, and kids instead satiate their junk food jones at off-campus fast food joints or from vending machines.

What is a school to do?  What applies in real estate apparently also holds true for the dining room;  Location, location, location.  According to the Atlantic’s article, “How Smart Cafeterias Could Fight Childhood Obesity“, simply rearranging the position of the nutritious foods, and in some cases they way in which it was presented, created dramatic results.  An upstate New York School simply moved a salad bar near a natural bottleneck in the lunch line and created an increase in veggie consumption by 300 percent.

Another New York school swapped stainless steel fruit containers for better-lit, more attractive baskets and saw a 105 percent increase in apple and orange selection.  The USDA is currently funding a program at  Cornell to study the behavior and economics of childhood nutritional behavior in order to find easy and cheap ways to influence healthier eating habits.

Do these incredibly simple and dramatic solutions sound a little far fetched?  Consider your last trip to the supermarket.  Where was the bakery or the dairy aisle?  Chances are they were towards the back.  Many stores do this to lure the shopper past items they would not usually need.  Since bakeries tempt us with delicious aromas and we almost always need to buy some sort of milk product, they place those departments in the hinterlands to force a tour-de-grocerie.

Even the height of the item on the shelf and temperature of the building subtly influence our purchases.  Chilly environments trigger our body’s natural impulse to hoard and consume food. Products at eye level are more likely to be purchased than ones that have to be hunted for.  According to the documentary Beer Wars, companies such as InBev know this, and have taken great pains to place as many of their brands at eye-level as possible in order to maximize the visual field and marginalize smaller producers.

Public health experts, such as Rupal Sanghvi, founder of HealthxDesign, are looking into how altering the design of supermarkets can create more community influenced stores that encourage informed consumption.  They argue that obesity and diabetes are problems that affect entire populations, often those that are less economically developed and need to be addressed as matters of social justice.  The debate over whether public money should be spent altering essentially private businesses continues, but as many urban communities begin to create initiatives to increase the number of socially and nutritionally minded enterprises in their areas, the free market may go green purely out of self-interest.  Just take a look at the success of the Whole Foods chain or WalMart’s decision to carry organics.  For a more in depth investigation into Sanghvi’s work and her partnership with the Parson’s School of Design, peruse Sarah Rich’s article, “A Better Way to Fight Obesity:  New, Smarter Supermarkets.

Next time you go shopping, take a little time to examine your surroundings.  What does your store look like, and how do you think you would rearrange its elements to encourage wise decisions?  Where do you buy food and why?


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