Promoting Nutrition with Online Choice Architecture

by Jeffrey Swigert Economic Researcher, Cornell University

Feeding America and Cornell University’s Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition have, for several years, joined forces in an effort to make the healthy choice the easy choice for the food insecure individuals served by food pantries throughout the United States.

In our work exploring “nudge” (or environmental cue) interventions before now, we have often observed that, regardless of where in the country we look, food pantry coordinators have an incredibly demanding job. We feel they deserve all the help we can give them. They do their best to maximize the nutritional quality of the items their food pantries offer, subject to a host of barriers like a general lack of time and limited financial resources and/or equipment capacity. Making nutritionally optimal choices available to the people they serve is difficult enough without adding these very real obstacles and constraints.

To help pantry coordinators and to help the people they serve, we are now expanding our application of behavioral economic principles. These are moving beyond the scope of the food pantry setting to now include online food choice environments faced by food pantry coordinators when placing orders from a food bank. We have learned that nudges are effective at increasing the likelihood that more nutritious foods are selected by the people we serve, but it occurred to us that the foods people choose and whether people are able to make healthy choices is ultimately determined by what food choices are offered. This “choice set” of goods offered is predetermined by food pantry and food bank personnel.

In view of the issues faced by each food pantry’s leadership, we decided to turn our focus to helping pantry coordinators along with the people they work so hard to serve. Our next step in our research will be to develop passive behavioral nudge interventions to influence choices made by food pantry coordinators, making healthy choices easier.

These innovations in scope and scale for this phase are made possible with the vital addition of industry professionals from tech-companies across the country including Qzzr and TechBridge to the existing team of Cornell University researchers and Feeding America nutrition and hunger-relief experts.

I’m grateful to be a member of the academic research design and evaluation team, led by Cornell University economist, Dr. David Just. This has been one of the most compelling examples to me of how behavioral science can be leveraged to improve the lives of individuals who struggle daily with various forms of scarcity, both those who face food-insecurity-based scarcity, as well as those who serve them, who themselves face scarcity in mental bandwidth available to think about subtle things that can make a difference. Given the host of important demands on their time and attention, I see this as a genuine opportunity to remove obstacles to more optimal choices.

Thanks to the generous support of Cargill Foundation, Feeding America and Cornell University continued the Nutrition Nudge Research study to explore these research questions.

Jeffrey Swigert is an economist at Cornell University and has been working with Dr. David Just and Christine Rivera, RD, on the Feeding America Nutrition Nudge project for several years now. His research interests include exploring how people perceive trade-offs between alternatives and understanding how various aspects of choice environments influence the quality of decision-making and the impacts this may have on health and well-being.