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REVAMPING THE COMMONS: A look at how behavioral economics can improve student nutrition

Rising Tufts senior Brent Abel, a nutrition expert and activist in foodie phenomena, takes retail food placement to a whole new level…

Part 1: The Scene of the Crime

The placement of food, ease of access of acquiring food, clear promotion of nutritional contents, and cost of food have all long been associated with strategic marketing to promote unhealthy foods across high school cafeterias and grocery stores1-3. Shocking it may be to consider that these same tactics are used, maybe unintentionally, at a location operated by Tufts Dining Services (TDS), an organization thought to promote the nutritional well-being of Tufts students. The scene of the crime takes place at none other than the Commons, a “campus social spot” (to quote the TDS website) located within the campus center central on campus and open until midnight or later. Popular to students not on meal plans looking for a quick meal while studying, the Commons is guilty of many of the crimes cafeterias and grocery stores across the nation are being accused of. I firmly believe that TDS is not intentionally attempting to subliminally influence student eating patterns to favor unhealthy foods, but TDS can make several improvements I consider to be simple to improve student eating choices at this central food mecca.

The placement of food: When one first walks into the Commons, what are the first things one sees? Cakes, sugary baked goods, the heating tray containing mainly fried foods, the soda fountain. Studies have shown that consumers often purchase food items first seen upon entering a grocery store, even if not on sale1. It should come as no surprise that grocery stores try now to squeeze expensive, and often unhealthy, foods items into the main entrance of their stores, an area once belonging solely to fresh produce. If you don’t believe me, do a complete 360 when you next walk into the grocery store, and you can usually spot at least one unhealthy food now, often with a bright colored sale sign just above it. Do you know where the fresh fruits and vegetables are located within the Commons? Bananas, oranges, and apples can only be visualized upon leaving the main focus of the deli and grill area. Grapes and carrot sticks are located within closed-door refrigerators (a point I will get to later), and they are in containers where the contents are hard to visualize. Although I am skeptical of whether this is utilized for nutritional benefit, the salad bar is also not located within the main area that students first walk into when they enter the Commons. Plus, the salad bar is not open beyond dinner hours, a time period when many students visit the Commons for a meal (though I am not aware of any available data to measure the proportion of students who visit the Commons when the salad bar is closed versus empty, and in fairness to TDS, maintaining a salad bar requires a great deal of effort that may not justify having it available late at night).

A quick solution: switch the place where the baked goods are currently displayed with a display of fruits and veggies students can purchase, and switch the soda fountain for an array of healthy drink options like milk, water, and fruit juices (though the nutritional benefit of fruit juices can also be argued with their high sugar content). Move the baked goods and sodas beyond the main deli and grill area, to areas students often breeze past on their way to checkout (currently home to yogurt, Sushi, grapes, and carrot sticks). Students can spend a long amount of time waiting in the grill area for their entrees to be prepared: as they look around this area to think about accompanying snacks and beverages, why not place healthier food options around? What would happen if the soda fountain machine near the grill station was replaced by another Brita water station as already installed only beyond the checkout line of the Commons? Based on evidence, more students waiting for their ordered sandwiches might consider filtered water over soda, granted this would generate no revenue for TDS. And while I am at it, why not ensure that the fruits and vegetables look appetizing when offered? The solutions for this may be less simple, but every time I have gone to the Commons within the past year, the bananas looked bruised, the apples past their time, the refrigerated celery a meager yellow. Students might make healthier choices if appetizing-looking fruits and veggies were reserved for later in the day, to ensure that even at night, a student might more strongly consider adding a banana to their meal. Rather than place grapes and carrots in closed-door refrigerators that make these healthy options hard to visualize, why note move them to an open refrigerated area like where sushi is now sold. Healthy options could also be placed right at the checkout counter, tempting waiting customers to consider adding an inexpensive banana to their meal. Students could then more easily visualize these healthier options to consider eating, maximizing potential for better student health.

Part 2: The ease of access acquiring food

Humans have been shown to generally prefer objects that are easier for them to acquire2. Why drive an hour to visit a farm to get fresh apples when your grocery store sells fine-tasting apples minutes away from where you live? In a less extreme situation, people will often stick with a default object they are given, and choose objects at their eye level they can be easily reached for. Evidenced by the influence of food placement in cafeterias, the idea of ease of acquisition is also shown when sugar-filled cereals are paid to be placed at the eye level of children in grocery stores to improve sales. The same issues are present in the Commons, exemplified first by the relative difficulty acquiring grapes compared with onion rings. When you walk into the Commons, onion rings can quickly be grabbed from under the heat lamp. All the trays of onion rings are available for you to visualize, and you can choose the most appetizing tray for your consumption. Grapes are a little bit harder to come by. Once you find the grapes, placed in what I find to be a rather obscure location of a closed-door refrigerator where drinks are also stored, you have to open up the refrigerator door (a rather difficult task if one of your hands is occupied by another item) and take out a top container of grapes. And if you wanted to potentially compare containers of grapes (a likely choice given the rather poor quality of the seemingly flaccid grapes based on my experiences), that would require even more maneuvers. Assuming grapes are not replenished at night, it is no surprise why containers of onion rings seem to constantly run out when the grapes look barely picked over at night.

The solution: why not make grapes more easily available to students by placing them in open refrigerated spaces that can easily be accessed and viewed, much like as described earlier? And rather than having trays of onion rings available in a single grab, why not make all students wishing onion rings order them from a person behind the counter? Students would have to make more of an effort to acquire them, and students may not realize the possibility of eating onion rings as easily as when they are placed in open view of all consumers. There is the added benefit that students could also not compare trays of onion rings if they were stored behind public view, and so this might prevent waste if one tray looks substantially more lackluster than others. The same philosophy could be applied to the addition of healthy toppings onto the hamburgers made in the Commons. Instead of having to find the sliced tomato in a sunken try not easy to visualize and then decompose the wrapped burger to add the tomato, why not have Common employees ask customers whether they would like to add sliced tomato onto their burgers as they do for sandwiches? Students have generally accepted this type of service as shown through Hodgdon burritos, and the evidence suggests more students might consider adding healthy toppings from this change. The toppings could be consolidated with the sandwich supplies, and there might be less food waste.

My final point, what I find to be the Jumbo in the room, pun intended, is the cost of the food offered in the Commons. Evidence has shown the cost significantly modulates food choices in cafeterias and grocery stores, often to promote unhealthy foods3. At the Commons, it is less expensive to buy unhealthy snacks like fried foods than healthier options like packages of fruits and veggies. Who would order a wrap costing around $7 when a hamburger with fries and soda costs less? I would be shocked if the cost of producing the bundles of grapes sold at the Commons could not be altered to be lower than the cost they are sold. The cost of unhealthy foods could also be made more expensive to favor the purchase of healthy options. Of interest, the establishment of a Subway restaurant, offering larger sandwiches for competitive prices in nearby Powderhouse Circle, has yet to alter the prices of food altered at the Commons,  and competition may affect the number of students willing to pay for food at the Commons. The issue in this discussion of cost is the revenue that TDS generates: at the end of the day, sales of unhealthy foods maximize profits, and there is a lack of transparency between TDS and Tufts students to explain why this is needed. Maybe the profits are used to subsidize benefits to students like the TDS nutritionist, but maybe there are other changes TDS can make to cut costs. Regardless, the lack of attention to student needs at the Commons could be considered a concern. TDS posts nutritional information at Dewick and Hodgdon, but what about the Commons, and think about how much this information would affect decisions of food ordered? The healthy-sounding wraps are likely considered to be two servings worth of food based on the size, but I do not see many students saving one half of their wrap for a later meal. While we might like to think of TDS as an organization concerned about student well-being as evidenced by the attention given to nutrition and conservation at the set-price dining centers Dewick, Carmichael, and Hodgdon, the motives of TDS are unclear at sites like the Commons where the set-up and costs do not seem to favor student wellbeing.


1R Bezawada et al. “Cross-category effects of aisle and display placements: A spatial modeling approach and insights” Journal of Marketing 73, May 2009, 99-117

2EL Vyth et al. “Influence of placement of a nutrition logo on cafeteria menu items on lunchtime food choices at Dutch work sites” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 111 (1), 2011

3SL Booth et al. “Environmental and societal factors affect food choice and physical activity: Rationale, influences, and leverage points” Nutrition Reviews 59 (3), March 2001, (II) S21-S39

– Brent Abel

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