Food Bank Nudges

We talked a bit about nudges earlier this week.  I love the term, because it's exactly what it sounds like - gently pushing individuals to choose healthier options.  And it works!  Researchers Dr. Brian Wansink and Dr. David Just of Cornell University have pioneered the linkages between food and behavioral economics, be it in the lunchroom or elsewhere.

Now Cornell has teamed up with Feeding America to identify, test and implement "nudges" in a food bank setting.  Relying often on donations, food banks aren't always the pinnacle of nutrition.  But new practices are starting to emerge.  Just this week the team published a "How To Guide: Nudges" that identifies "ways to create a strategy that fits your food bank or food pantry’s needs to help make the healthy choice the easy choice."

Let's break down the recommendations:

First, all "nudged foods" must meet Feeding America's "Foods to Encourage." The Foods to Encourage (F2E) framework was "designed to more accurately evaluate and describe the nutritional contributions of the food categories in the food banks’ inventories."

And here's what works, taken from the How To Guide:

1.  Recipe card placement near Foods to Encourage (F2E) items - Having recipes that include fresh produce leads low-income mothers to serve more fresh fruits and vegetables (Birmingham, Schulz and Edlefsen). This is because having access to the recipe leads them to be more confident that they will be able to use the produce. More than 40% of supermarket shoppers would like to be given healthy recipes in the store (FMI).

2. Suggesting an amount to help normalize a behavior of taking more F2E - Signs informing clients that the average family takes 5 produce items increases produce takings by more than 10%. Signs were placed inside of shopping carts facing the client. Signs included some positive imaging (a happy face, with a thumbs up sign). By indicating how much others take, the signs create a social norm. Individuals who take less feel they should increase their takings. However, we must also worry about people who already choose more than 5 choosing less. This can be avoided by including positive reinforcement regarding the decision to choose more. In this case, we have included the thumbs up sign, associating the choice of produce with something positive.

3. Pairing F2E items to create a package meal idea ( to help consumers know how to pair more F2E together and make a meal idea simple) aka bundling food - When foods are bundled together for convenience, up to 18% more will take the bundled food – even if the bundled food is relatively healthier. This can also result in up to a 25% reduction in consumption of unbundled less healthy items (Hanks et al., 2012). This is true even when there is no price advantage for the bundled foods. Consumers view this bundling as a social norm and thus value the bundled food more than they would if the foods were not bundled together (Sharpe and Staelin, 2010).

4. Signs for priming - Placing material that highlights specific attributes of a particular item (posters, floor arrows, shopping cart placards, etc.) at strategic locations: waiting areas, bottlenecks, pathways. These work to increase an item’s salience and prime individuals for when they are presented the opportunity to select the item. Content on the sign may communicate a social norm, highlight the desirability of the item with an appealing image, or simply direct the individual towards the good. Floor arrows were found to increase sales of fruit and vegetables by 9% (Payne et al., working paper). Placards within grocery carts led to a 16% increases in produce purchases (Payne et al., 2015).

5. Front and center product placement - Placing produce in a prominent location where it is easily reached and seen can increase the selection of produce by more than 100% (Just and Wansink). This has been confirmed in multiple settings including grocery stores, bodegas and convenience stores. Just placing an item first in a line can increase takings by more than 11% relative to other places in the line. Finding a way to make healthy foods more prominent and attractive, for example, by placing produce in an attractive bowl or basket, goes a long way toward reminding clients of just how good that orange or apple can be. Placing a fruit item on two separate locations on the line can increase takings in some cases by more than 300%. The first time a fruit appears it may trigger a latent desire to eat the fruit, but by the time the individual realizes the desire they may have passed the item. But they will be ready the second time.

Hopefully food banks across the U.S. will begin to implement these practices even more.  This begs for some additional research, too, to get a sense as to what continues to work, where and why.  A more nutritious food bank basket of food seems like a win-win.