California’s Smarter Lunchrooms Movement Nudges Students Toward Healthy Choices

by Justin Taylor

Part of the Food Policy Snapshot Series

Policy Name:

The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, California



Population: 39,536,653 (U.S. Census, 2017)


The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement (SLM) is a school lunch program launched by the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs (the BEN Center) in collaboration with the California Department of Education. It consists of a grant of up to $13,600 and training in how to increase the consumption of healthy school lunch options. The SLM uses evidence-based, low or no-cost solutions to encourage students to make healthier choices in the lunchroom.

Progress to date:

According to the SLM’s website, over 29,000 schools are now using Smarter Lunchrooms strategies. One campus catering director reported that consumption of vegetables increased 76% after the strategies were adopted.

Program/Policy Initiated:

The program launched in 2009.

Food policy category:

Diet and nutrition

Program goals:

The SLM’s core values include:

  • Low and no-cost solutions
  • Lunchroom environment focus
  • Promotion of healthful eating behaviors
  • Sustainability

The SLM’s strategies are designed to:

  • Manage portion sizes
  • Increase convenience
  • Improve visibility
  • Enhance taste expectations
  • Use suggestive selling
  • Set smart pricing strategies

How it works:

In order to receive the grant of up to $13,600, interested schools must first apply to officially be part of the program. However, the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement shares all 60 of its strategies on its website free of charge, so all schools can take advantage their methods. The strategies are based on research from the fields of psychology, economics, and marketing and are intended to nudge students toward making healthier choices. Many of the SLM’s strategies boost healthy food consumption by simply make fruits and vegetables more visible and attractive. Below are some examples of the strategies suggested by the SLM.

Focus on the Fruit

  • Offer at least two types of fruit.
  • Pre-slice fruit, as students prefer convenient and easy to eat foods.
  • Make fruits more attractive by placing them in colorful bowls instead of stainless steel pans.

Vary the Vegetables

  • Appeal to students with varying tastes by offering both hot and cold vegetables.
  • Provide seasoning stations for students to personalize their vegetable dishes.
  • Hold vegetable taste tests to expose students to unfamiliar vegetables.

Highlight the Salad

  • Pre-package salads for increased convenience.
  • Place salads in visible, highly-trafficked areas.
  • Give salads fun, creative names that appeal to kids.

Move More White Milk

  • Keep milk cases full throughout the lunch service.
  • Place white milk in front of flavored milk in display cases.
  • Label white milk with attractive and creative names like “Dairy Fresh White Milk” or “Mighty Milk.”

Boost Reimbursable Meals

  • Prompt students to “complete their meal” with a serving of fruit or vegetables.
  • Use a creative name for the entree of the day.
  • Create a sample tray to display the combo or entree of the day.

Lunchroom Atmosphere

  • Use a colorful and appealing menu, just like a restaurant.
  • Place attractive posters that encourage students to eat healthy foods around the lunchroom.
  • Make sure the lunchroom is well lit.

Student Involvement

  • Make students feel involved by hanging their artwork in the lunchroom.
  • Invite students to come up with creative names for dishes.
  • Get feedback from students through surveys or focus groups.

School Community Involvement

  • Provide school lunch information in the main office.
  • Incorporate nutrition education into the school’s curriculum.
  • Engage students in growing food with school gardens.

Why it is important:

Obesity has been on the rise in the United States for the last several decades. According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, in 1971-1974, only 5% of American children were considered obese. Today, that number has more than tripled to around 17%.

Overweight and obese children can suffer from a number of psychological as well as physiological conditions related to their unhealthy weight. These include low self-esteem, eating disorders, and depression as well as type 2 diabetes, asthma, hypertension, and sleep apnea. Obese children are also more likely to be obese as adults, which puts them at risk of other critical conditions such as stroke, cardiovascular disease, and some types of cancer.

Children begin to have more autonomy over their food choices as they enter school. These formative years play a major role in determining the dietary decisions that children will make as they mature into adolescence and adulthood. A study from Pennsylvania State University shows that children’s food preferences are shaped by the availability, accessibility, and familiarity of foods. Healthy modeling along with early exposure to a variety of fruits and vegetables can play a significant role in establishing healthy eating habits.


The SLM provides scorecards for schools to evaluate their progress.

Learn more:

Point of Contact:

California Nutrition Services


Similar practices:

Awareness about the importance of healthy school lunches has grown around the world in recent years. Programs designed to increase fruit and vegetable consumption in schools have been introduced in Slovenia, Sweden, and Japan.



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