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Campus Dining is brilliant.

When you walk through the buffet, have you noticed that the options are usually ordered in the same way, at every dining hall, at every meal? You receive vegetables first, then grains and proteins.

This isn’t an accident. It’s a subtle, powerful policy choice.

Campus Dining has embraced “plant forward” menus that highlight great flavors and healthy, sustainable ingredients. As part of the Culinary Institute of America and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Menus of Change program, this plant forward approach is Princeton’s way of integrating optimal nutrition, environmental stewardship, and social responsibility into the meals we eat each day.

“Plant forward” means that dining hall menus often promote vegetable-heavy dishes and diets. With the assistance of the Greening Dining student group, Campus Dining has been encouraging healthy eating through signs in the servery, flyers inside napkin holders at tables, and buffet architecture. This architecture may be the most powerful — yet least appreciated — component of the plan. By literally placing vegetables in front of meats and grains in the buffet line, students are “defaulted” into filling up space on their plate with vegetables. It shifts consumption patterns toward more vegetables, which are healthy for the human and the planet, and away from everything else. It’s light-touch intervention: For those truly motivated to avoid vegetables, loading their plates with meat requires walking forward two more steps. But for the vegetable-neutral, distracted, or apathetic dining hall consumer, beginning the meal with a serving of vegetables is the easiest option. This default is a subtle, but powerful, Campus Dining strategy.

As Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein highlight in their 2008 book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness,” default options matter. Regardless of the quality of the default option, loss aversion and mindless choosing typically prompt a larger-than-expected portion of any given population to end up with the default option. This is true even in large, seemingly significant decisions. The most striking example of this, I think, is organ donation: Johnson and Goldstein (2003) found that countries with opt-out organ donation systems, where the default is presumed consent to organ donation, had far higher donation rates than countries with opt-in systems. To compare two similar countries, Germany had an opt-in system and 12 percent of people donated. Australia had an opt-out system; 99 percent of people donated. Authors re-created the choice architecture in experiments and found that an “opt in” default led to a 42 percent organ donation rate, while an “opt out” default led to an organ donation rate of 82 percent. Defaults are not inconsequential. People are cognitively lazy.

This is why Campus Dining is brilliant. Without resorting to draconian health or sustainability policies, they have moved the average Princeton student to a healthier, more sustainable diet. I wish there were data on how much plate compositions have actually changed with this policy, but I have a hunch that if tomorrow’s buffet offered the meat entrée first, campus would eat a little less healthily and a little less sustainably. Maybe this is a good space for a class project and an eating club; to see how defaults affect diet choices, use ChooseMyPlate.gov guidelines to compare plates before and after enacting the policy in an eating club. How much do plates change? How much have Princeton students (unknowingly) benefitted from Campus Dining’s buffet architecture?

So this week, the last of Campus Dining’s Sustainability Month, thank the dining staff. How you fuel your body is one of the most important health and environmental decisions you make each day; a simple, carefully-designed policy has defaulted you into a healthy choice.

Alex Wheatley is a first-year MPA student at the Woodrow Wilson School from Newtown, Pa. She can be reached at ajw2@princeton.edu.

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