Richfield High School took a page out of the junk food marketing playbook when it opened the school year with a spruced-up cafeteria.
But don’t worry, school lunch clerks weren’t pushing Snickers and Ho Hos. Their goal, instead, was to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, and they succeeded, according to Pam Haupt, the district’s director of food and nutrition. Through a grant from the University of Minnesota, high school students teamed with a consultant last spring to re-imagine the school lunch experience.
The result was big, bold imagery of produce greeting the midday diners, an array of TV displays further encouraging healthy eating and an updated space that included new colors and a freshly polished terrazzo floor.
“We’re just using the same techniques that any food marketing does, junk food marketing specifically,” said Andy Berndt, director of Community Blueprint, the consultant on the project.
Community Blueprint takes on similar projects at other high schools as well, focusing on student-involved solutions on projects addressing issues such as sexual health, violence reduction, tobacco and alcohol use prevention, in addition to the school food programming.
The refreshed cafeteria at Richfield High School has brought in more eaters than senior food service clerk Courtney LaDuke has ever seen in her time on the job.
“This is the first time in the 17 years I have worked here that the number of students served in one day has exceeded 700,” LaDuke said.
This year, 72 percent of Richfield High School students are opting to eat school lunch, compared to 68 percent last year, according to Haupt.
Also, Haupt said, “Our consumption of fresh fruits and vegetable has been on the increase.” She added that this is the second straight year the district’s nutrition program is increasing its purchases of fruit and vegetables.
One student central to the planning process was Larry Lopez, who was heavily involved in the student input sessions last May that led to the redesign. Lopez said his friends used to eat in the library instead of the cafeteria. “Now it is different. It is not just coming to lunch, but also somewhere to be with friends,” he said.
The changes resulted in a more organized experience in the lunch line, Lopez said, with the TV displays helping direct students to any of three lines available, depending on what students want to eat. Before, Haupt explained, there were merely small sheets hanging at the door announcing the menu options.
“TV screens help students see what choices they have with a full description,” Lopez said. “Some students didn’t know about the choices before.”
One goal was to simply make fruits and vegetables more visible, the same way retailers use end-caps or place certain items at the point of purchase to entice shoppers, Berndt explained.
Junk food is popular for two reasons, he added: Because it’s scientifically engineered to taste good, and because it has a robust marketing budget.
“Apples doesn’t have the marketing budget Cheetos does,” he noted.
And keeping kids eating in school when many of them could easily go off campus for lunch gives the school a greater chance to influence healthy nutrition decisions, Haupt said.
“A very important part of their academic success is just how they’re nourishing their bodies throughout the day to perform their best,” she said.
Additionally, the district wants to make sure it reaches as many students as possible who might qualify for free or reduced price lunch, and enhanced school lunch marketing helps find them, too, Haupt added.
The cafeteria overhaul is also a lesson in the power of marketing, a tool that can of course be used to less wholesome ends.
“If we put chocolate and Snickers bars everywhere,” Berndt said, “those would be big sellers too.”