October, 2016

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Marketing Vegetables in Elementary School Cafeterias To Increase Uptake

By Andrew S. Hanks, David R. Just, Adam Brumberg

OBJECTIVES: Children do not eat enough servings of vegetables, underscoring the need for effective interventions encouraging this behavior. The purpose of this research was to measure the impact that daily exposure to branded vegetable characters has on vegetable selection among boys and girls in elementary schools.

METHODS: In a large urban school district, 10 elementary schools agreed to participate in the study. They were randomly assigned to a control condition or one of three treatment conditions: (1) a vinyl banner displaying vegetable characters that was fastened around the base of the salad bar; (2) short television segments with health education delivered by vegetable characters; or (3) a combination of the vinyl banner and television segments. We collected 22,206 student-day observations over a 6-week period by tallying the number of boys and girls taking vegetables from the school’s salad bar.


What’s Known on This Subject

This research builds on previous work  illustrating how branded media that appeals to children can lead both boys and girls to take more fresh vegetables.

To increase fruit and vegetable intake in school-aged children, lawmakers passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Nutrition requirements associated with the new act include increasing the variety of vegetables served, ensuring that each lunch includes a serving of fruit or vegetables, serving more whole grain breads and pastas, and serving only 1% and fat-free milk varieties and only fat-free flavored milk.

In contrast to the regulatory approach, modifications to a child’s external environment can influence food choice. For example, retrofitting one of two lunch lines to serve only healthier foods can decrease caloric intake among children, and simply paying children to eat their vegetables can also be effective. Furthermore, there is evidence that peer pressure and serving foods in more attractive bowls increase fruit and vegetable uptake. The primary objective of the present research was to measure the effect of a vegetable marketing campaign in elementary school cafeterias to increase uptake of salad and other vegetables.


Branded Media Interventions

For this study, the branded media consist of a vinyl banner with vegetable characters printed across the front and short segments shown on a flat screen television. Researchers fastened each vinyl banner to the metal casing on the lower portion of the salad bar just below the area where the salad components are served and wrapped the banner around the whole salad bar. They also placed small stands above the sneeze shield to hold a second rectangular banner. Second, flat screen televisions were placed on small tables near the school’s salad bar to attract children’s attention. Short video segments with the branded vegetable characters delivering nutrition education messages ran on the televisions. In all the intervention schools, small decals printed with the vegetable characters were placed on the floor to direct traffic to the salad bars.


School Characteristics

Schools in this study were selected from a large urban northeastern U.S. school district and agreed to participate in a randomized controlled field study. Median household income in this district is just under $52,000, and 82% of the students receive a free or reduced price lunch. Schools in the control group had the lowest average enrollment at 465 students, whereas schools in the combined intervention had the highest enrollment at 668 students. Furthermore, the percentage of students receiving a free or reduced price lunch was lowest in the schools with the combined intervention at 70% and highest in schools with the television segment–only intervention at 91%. Finally, the percentage of black or Hispanic students in the schools varied from 73% in the control schools to 94% in the schools with a vinyl banner.


Data and Analysis

Two types of data were collected to measure the impact of media on student behavior. First, food preparation records were collected for all 10 schools. These records report the number of servings taken for each food item as well as the number of children receiving lunch. Vegetable servings taken met the requirement that children in grades kindergarten through 8 receive three-quarters cup of vegetables each day. The outcome measures of interest are the number and percentage of students taking salad and vegetables during lunch. The percent measure was calculated by dividing the number of students taking salad and vegetables by the number of students receiving lunch.

We also collected counts of the number of boys and girls serving themselves vegetables at the salad bar. The count data generated three outcome measures: (1) number of students taking vegetables from the salad bar; (2) percentage of students taking vegetables from the salad bar, calculated by dividing count values by the total number of children receiving lunch; and (3) separate counts of girls and boys taking vegetables from the salad bar. Based on the total number of lunches taken each day, the total number of student-day observations was 22,206.

RESULTS: Results show 90.5% more students took vegetables from the salad bar when exposed to the vinyl banner only, and 239.2% more students visited the salad bar when exposed to both the television segments and vinyl banners. Both boys and girls responded positively to the banners.


About The Ohio State Universitys Department of Human Sciences: Since its beginnings in 1895, the College of Education and Human Ecology (EHE) has valued learning as a lifelong process. The educators, researchers and professionals help grow academic success and health and wellness for generations to come.



Research Leads To 10 More Questions

In decades of writing columns for this magazine, we received and reviewed hundreds, maybe thousands, of research reports. If we had to say what we learned from this review, it would be this: The answer you get depends on the question you ask.

This research basically tests whether marketing can be successful with children in school when it comes to produce. Not surprisingly, children and fresh produce are not exempt from the many techniques that industry spends billions on every year to maintain and to change procurement habits.

As with all good research, this project raises many questions for further study:

1.     Is there a connection between students taking more produce on their plate and higher consumption at that meal? In other words, if I don’t like to drink alcohol, social pressure might make me take a drink from the bar just to have one in my hand. But that doesn’t mean I drink it. If social pressure to be healthy is driving kids to take more produce, is it also driving them to eat it?

2.     If children do eat more produce in the cafeteria, do they compensate and eat less at other parts of the day?If they have a big salad at lunch, does that develop the taste for salad, and they eat more salad at dinner? Or do they tire of the salad experience and eat less salad at other dayparts.

3.     Whatever the impact of these videos and banners, does it dissipate over time?Maybe the banners and videos initially stimulate interest and thus trial, but if you keep playing the same videos and keep the same banners up, do they become background noise and wallpaper?

4.     Do these marketing efforts have long-term effects?In other words, if we do a year of this marketing, does it impact what the children take from the salad bar next year? In high school? In college? As adults?

5.     Is there a downside?Do children who are stimulated to take produce make bad combinations that turn them off produce? In other words, would we be better off having chefs create composed salads that don’t cause indigestion?

6.     Will the kids eat kale? All produce is not created equal. It is one thing to get children to select sweet fruits, even certain vegetables, such as carrots and peas, but what about getting children to eat bitter vegetables and other produce items that are believed to have valuable nutritional qualities? Do these banners and videos do that?

7.     To what degree does the health education component have any real impact?The study shows that the video had a big impact, but if instead of having a health message, those videos had the produce items doing funny dances or had celebrities eating the produce...would this have been more or less effective?           

8.     Does eating more produce actually improve the health of the children?For example, do children who are taught to eat more produce reduce consumption of other foods, or do they tend to get heavier as time goes by?              

9.     Do children who learn about produce influence their parents to change their eating and shopping habits?There are many anecdotal stories about children turning against smoking through education and then convincing their parents to quit. Does this dynamic work with diet?           

10.  Will willingness to accept produce continue to increase with more marketing?The study indicates that adding the video to the signage boosts the amount of produce on children’s plates. What if we add other promotions, such as online, audio, table-tents cards on the tables, etc.?


There are many other questions to be answered, such as how the impact of the promotion differs on different ethnic groups or income demographics. Most of these children received free or subsidized school lunches: How does the dynamic change when one has to pay hard-earned money to buy more produce?

But for now, we can tip a hat to the researchers for reminding us that produce is a consumer good that needs to be constantly marketed and promoted if we want to increase consumption.