In order to solve national and global problems, one must understand the complexities of human behavior.
We cannot implement successful public policy solutions without understanding human motivation.
Take, for example, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which went into effect in 2012 after Michelle Obama campaigned for tougher federal nutrition standards.
The guidelines are based on sound, scientific research.
Yet, analysis of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act provides some food for thought (pun intended) about efforts to control social and personal behaviors through regulation. It seems that even small children do not respond well to coercion.
The problem of childhood obesity, then, is less about the science of what kids should eat and much more about the psychology of why they eat it.
Not long after Michelle Obama’s new lunch standards went into effect, students started to complain about some of the meals their schools were offering. Twitter became inundated with pictures of grotesque mystery meats, oddly paired food items, and puny serving sizes, accompanied with the hashtag “ThanksMichelleObama.”
Parents complained that the calorie restrictions were unreasonable for some students, especially athletes. Schools offered the option for students to buy extra items a la carte or purchase a second lunch, defeating the purpose of calorie controls in the first place.
For some parents, added costs and complaining children meant packing lunches at home. One school in Chicago attempted to force students to buy the healthier lunches by banning food from home. Other schools have taken to “inspecting” packed lunches to ensure that they meet the required nutritional standards.
This heavy-handed approach to making children eat healthier foods has not worked. In fact, schools immediately complained that the new menus created more waste, as children merely threw away unwanted food. While some parents may successfully force their children to eat their veggies at home, no school cafeteria is equipped to enforce the rule that hundreds of students must eat carrots before leaving the table.
Of course, one could argue that the food service providers at these schools simply did not know how to prepare healthy and delicious food. Some school districts report that they have gotten better at meeting the nutritional standards with appetizing and popular food choices. If the policy merely requires schools to sneak some whole wheat flour into the pizza dough, perhaps children will be better off.
But the act goes beyond controlling what cafeterias put into the food. It also attempts to mandate personal behavior. Students are required to take a fruit or vegetable when they pass through the cafeteria line. The naïve assumption is that making students take vegetables will make them eat vegetables.
A new study by Sarah Amin at the University of Vermont reveals that requiring students to take a veggie on their tray does not increase consumption. Students merely toss unwanted food in the trash.
But the study goes even further and reveals something about human nature: We are a defiant species. When forced to take a fruit or vegetable, students actually consume fewer of these items than when they are merely offered as a choice. In other words, the 2012 Healthy Hungry-Free Kids Act may have decreased vegetable consumption.
This does not mean that we cannot adopt smart, effective policies to make children healthier. But smart policies are research-based and developed by people who study and understand human behavior, rather than arrogantly command others to act. For example, a study by Joseph Price and David Just finds that students eat more fruit and vegetables with their lunches if they have recess before lunch. It seems that fresh air and exercise produce a natural hunger for these healthy foods.
How many other policies generate resistance and counterproductive responses because they aim to command behavior rather than understand or motivate it? Perhaps environmental regulations would be more effective if we stopped debating the science of global warming and instead conducted research on what motivates people to become stewards of their environment.
The lesson from the school lunch program is that effective public policy solutions are grounded in not only scientific research, but also in social science research. While the former can predict the benefits of fruit consumption on the human body, only the latter can predict whether someone will consume the fruit.
April Kelly-Woessner is a professor and chairwoman of the political science department at Elizabethtown College. She also is a correspondent for LNP. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.