Key Facts about the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement

Healthy Food Choices in Schools August 17, 2016 Print Friendly and PDF

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In 2009, the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Program (B.E.N. Center) introduced the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement (SLM). The goal of this initiative is to implement simple, low and no-cost changes in the lunchroom to nudge kids to make nutritious choices and ultimately to improve participation in school lunch programs while decreasing waste.

SLM provides school cafeterias with 100, research-based best practices. Today SLM is in use in over 30,000 US schools, and its strategies are part of the USDA’s Healthier US School Challenge.

Below are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions, tips for getting started, and some testimonials of those who have successfully implemented SLM. All of this information is also available in a 2 page flyer that you can print and share with your colleagues to create enthusiasm for the program! Download the PDF here.

What is it?

  • Low and no-cost solutions
  • Gently nudges kids to select more fruits and vegetables
  • Increases school meal program participation
  • Applicable to any size lunchroom
  • Easy and inexpensive to implement

Does it work?

  • Increases selection of healthier foods by up to 25%
  • Decreases waste by up to 28%

Who’s doing it?

  • 5,127 Urban schools, 6,999 Suburban schools, 5,061 Town schools, and 12,813 Rural schools*
  • 4,709 Middle schools, 6,072 High schools, and 9,219 Elementary schools
  • Early adopters are schools where the Food Service Director also belongs to a professional organization: School Nutrition Association, Society of Nutrition Education and Behavior, Association of Nutrition and Dietetics, American Culinary Federation, etc.

How do I get started?

  1. Self-score your lunchroom using the 100 point scorecard
  2. With your team, pick 3-5 strategies from the scorecard to implement right away.
  3. Capture the success – take before and after photos, monitor change in participation and sales records.
  4. Share the results. Tell the community what is going right in the cafeteria. Keep parents, staff, and the B.E.N. Center in the know!
  5. Pick out some more changes and keep the momentum going!

Eight Easy Smarter Lunchroom Changes

  1. Highlight fresh/whole fruit by placing it in a nice, colorful bowl by the register.
  2. Place fruit in at least two different spots on the lunch line.
  3. Enhance taste expectations by giving fruits and veggies creative names like x-ray vision carrots or protein packed chick peas.
  4. Give white milk the edge by placing it in every drink cooler, making it at least 1/3 of all milk and by placing it in front of flavored milk.
  5. Bundle the items of a reimbursable lunch into a grab and go meal and give it a fun name.
  6. Use a large menu board to highlight the named and featured foods.
  7. Brand the cafeteria by naming it after the school mascot, favorite teacher, or local hero.
  8. Place the healthiest snacks at eye level.


 “Strategies like Smarter Lunchrooms give schools simple, actionable, low-cost steps that help make sure that the healthy food on kids’ plates ends up in their stomachs.” 

           Tom Vilsack, United States Secretary of Agriculture

“I really appreciate the partnership with the B.E.N. Center and the work Smarter Lunchrooms has done across this country to encourage children to eat healthier meals. What’s really beneficial is that the whole entire initiative has science to back it up.”

           Katie Wilson, Deputy under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services.

“We started implementing the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement techniques and we saw an increase in our fruit selections by putting those fruits at the point of sale. We’ve also seen an increase in the white milk ... so we are seeing choices made by the students have improved drastically.”

           Melinda Bonner, Director of Child Nutrition-Hoover City Schools.

Download a PDF of this information to share with your colleagues!

*Rural areas (census-defined rural territories that can be more than 10 miles from an urban cluster), Suburban areas (territories outside a principal city and inside urbanized area with populations of up to 250,000 or more), Urban areas (territories inside the urbanized area and inside a principal city with populations of up to 250,000 or more), and Towns (territories inside an urban cluster that can be more than 35 miles of an urbanized area).


Heidi Kessler, Adam Brumberg and Katie Baildon, Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs 


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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.