A dissertation on choice architecture & change...
On Thursday, as First Lady Michelle Obama was announcing a new program to get professional chefs to volunteer in America's schools as combination cooks and policy wonks, her own chef/policy wonk, Sam Kass, was in Las Vegas, urging supermarket industry honchos to take a leadership role in Let's Move!. And he was channeling influential White House policy wonk Cass Sunstein.
Kass (above) gave the closing keynote speech at Food Marketing Institute's FMI2010, a major trade show for industry pros, attended by thousands of people from across the country. Earlier this week, Walmart made it abundantly clear that supermarket entities can partner, in a major way, on child health campaigns, when the corporation announced a five-year, $2 billion commitment to work with government and non-government partners to battle child hunger, in a campaign called "Fighting Hunger Together," which mirrors the structure of Let's Move!.
The theme at FMI2010 was health and wellness, and as he spoke at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, Kass told the grocery retailers that it's time to seize the opportunity to be leaders in creating a generation of healthier kids by being “architects of choice,” on both the micro and macro level. He gave a mini dissertation on how to change the design of markets, which ranged from where to position healthy foods, to why changing food packaging labels is crucial for parents' decision making, to why it's important to build more supermarkets in places that don't have them. That's where the Sunstein effect came in.
Sunstein wrote the "handbook" on choice architecture; he's the co-author of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, which posits that individuals can be encouraged to make better decisions about a whole range of things, if their physical environment is structured to make that decision the "easy" one. Sunstein is currently Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and wrote the book before starting work at the White House. But it's a fave with certain policy makers there, and the theory is incorporated in many of the initiatives in Let's Move!, and other areas of the administration--though Mrs. Obama has not yet used the phrase "choice architecture" publicly.
Kass did. He told his audience that on the micro level, right inside markets, retailers could make some fairly easy tweaks to make it easier for shoppers to choose healthier foods. A big suggestion: Don't sell candy in checkout lines, so parents don't have to deal with pleas for sugar. Instead, put healthy snacks in check out lines, which encourages kids to think differently about eating and snacking...eliminates whining...and makes it easier for parents to make healthy chices.
Kass also suggested including healthy and nutritious food choices in end-of-aisle and center of store displays, and on child-height shelves, to draw attention to these. He noted that offering product samples of healthy foods to shoppers could also increase the likelihood that these would be purchased. "Just try it" is something of a mantra of Mrs. Obama's, and Kass's suggestion makes "trying it" an easy choice.
Labeling boosts better choices, too, Kass said.
“A front of pack label may be the single most important tool a parent can have to help make the healthier choice the easier choice,” Kass said, and described FDA efforts to work with food makers for labeling changes. That particular issue is one of the pillars of Let's Move!.
Kass also described the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, the administration's $400 million fund that will encourage markets to be built in areas that do not have these.
“Our goal is to eliminate food deserts in seven years,” said Kass, something Mrs. Obama has repeated often, and the reason she traveled to Philadelphia in February, to visit Fresh Grocer, a market in a low-income neighborhood.
"Supermarkets can take a leadership role in eliminating food deserts," Kass said, and encouraged his audience to consider low income areas in urban and rural areas when making plans to locate new markets.
Kass was well received by his audience, though there was a relatively small turn out, because the speech came on the final day of the three-day conference, and many people had apparently already left. The Food Marketing Institute has a membership that includes major chains and single markets, and is responsible for billions of dollars of annual food sales--about 3/4 of the foods sold in the US.
Update, Sunday May 17: The New York Times has a long profile of Sunstein in today's Sunday Magazine, which explains choice architecture in detail.
*Photo by Obama Foodorama