Brian Wansink, PhD, is speaking at the inaugural New York City Food Tank Summit, “Focusing on Food Loss and Waste,” which will be held in partnership with Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data (ReFED) and with support from The Rockefeller Foundation on September 13, 2017.
Wansink is the John Dyson Professor of Marketing, the Director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, and Co-Director of the Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs. He is also co-founder of the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement at the Dyson School of Applied Economics & Management at Cornell.
Since earning his PhD in marketing at Stanford, Wansink has been a marketing professor at Amos Tuck School at Dartmouth College, the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He was also the Julian Simon Faculty Scholar and Professor of Marketing, Nutritional Sciences, and Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. He is the author of more than 150 peer-reviewed papers and of the best-selling books Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (2006) and Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life (2014). More of his on where food habits and behavior science intersect can be found on Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab.
Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Wansink about his work and his passion for improving the daily choices people make about their food.
Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved in your work?
Brian Wansink (BW): I have come to realize that small changes can make a huge difference in our eating habits. You can talk to the smartest friend you have and ask them why they ate what they ate for breakfast, why they didn’t finish their dinner last night, what they are going to have for a snack. They may be able to come up with an answer, but they really have no idea. It is realizing what influences us in these ways and being able to provide solutions about how to improve what we eat. To improve what people eat when they go to restaurants. To improve what kids eat when they go to school lunchrooms.
FT: What makes you continue to want to be involved in this kind of work?
BW: The unexpected discoveries that we have come up with related to behavior have had these marked influences on what people do. A small discovery ends up changing the kids meals that fast food restaurants offer. Another discovery ends up changing the way grocery stores set up their produce lines. Seeing these really simple discoveries having a big difference is tremendously encouraging.
FT: Can you give an example of one of those discoveries you made?
BW: One of the things that we discovered was that simply changing the size of dinner plates can reduce the amount of food people take by about 20 percent, while they don’t believe that they have eaten any less. All it takes is using a smaller, 9 to 10-inch dinner plate, instead of using an 11 or 12-inch dinner plate like most of us use. In the first chapter of my book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (2006), I talk about starting the Small Plate Movement. This movement has been rolled out in Scandinavia and has changed the size of plates that are used in hotel chains and buffets in there. It is starting to make its way over to America.
Another change we made was to create the Smarter Lunchroom Movement. The Smarter Lunchroom Movement is now in 29,000 schools in the United States. It looks at making healthier food more attractive to students and more normal to take, by using techniques like changing the item’s position in line. It is portrayed even before people even get to the lunchroom and has changed the way kids eat without having to change the food itself. It is about guiding kids to apples instead of cookies.
FT: Who inspired you as a kid?
BW: Herbert Hoover. Growing up in Iowa (which is the state he grew up in), I heard the story that he had pretty much saved much of western Europe after World War One because of the food relief program he set up. I remember saying that if I could do a fraction of what he did to help people become happier and healthier, I would be the luckiest person in the world. Interestingly, during my interview in Washington, D.C., to be in charge of the dietary guidelines for 2007 through 2009, I actually said that and it surprised many people. I felt really grateful to have had the chance to impact the dietary guidelines and now for the strides we are able make toward more positive eating behavior.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
BW: For almost 30 years, people have been told it is not their fault—. That it is the fault of fast food companies or the fault of government, or that it is the fault of the food industry. As this has gone on the person and the consumer, can resign themselves to thinking that there is nothing they can do about their food choices. It has lead to people thinking there is nothing they can do to improve their kids diet. Having designed that sort of structure can have a huge impact on what our families eat and can very easily have been behind many of the dietary problems we have seen over the last 10 to 15 years.
We find that nutritional gatekeepers, (the person in the family that buys and prepares most of the food), end up influencing about 72 percent of all the food eaten by the family. This can be for the better or for the worse. For instance, having a fruit bowl on the table instead of a cookie jar has a positive effect. So does choosing to go to a restaurant that actually serves salad, not just fried foods. Being able to empower people to say, ‘wait a minute, there is a ton of stuff that I can do.’ Fast food companies don’t have to be to blame, neither do multinational companies, or the government. There is stuff we can all do right away. That is where the action is at.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that has inspired you?
BW: Herbert Hoover graduated as part of the first class of civil engineers at Stanford before World War One. At that time, he was one of the highest paid people in the mining industry in South America, but he gave up that incredibly lucrative career to help address the many problems in the logistics of supplying all the food aid that was needed in the aftermath of World War One. He set it all aside, essentially, to prevent a lot of Western Europe from starving. Many people may question what a mine engineer knows about food systems. Much of the problem was in the logistics, so he was able to use many of the tools he had as an engineer to set up a food relief system that worked in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Russia.
FT: What would you say is the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you would like to see solved?
BW: I would like people to not believe that the solution to everything food related is to ask and rely on the government to solve it through passing new laws. I think what we learn is that most laws and most regulations related to the food industry have really strange, unintended consequences. I would like to see changes in the very low hanging fruit. Changes to things that can be done quickly that are able to show people and institutions just how quickly positive changes can be made. Whether that be things like the Smarter Lunchroom Movement or whether it be programs that we have started in grocery stores or community stores.
Our program called Healthy Profits explains, why in many food deserts, you can now see fruit right next to the checkout. You can buy bananas the same place you buy gas. That didn’t take legislation, it didn’t take huge grants. All it took was showing convenience stores that this is a great way to make more money.
All of these systems that have been set up in the past, have been so huge and so amorphous that they have done nothing more than discourage all the players because they try to change the intergalactic food system. First, there is no agreement on how to do it. Second, after two or three attempts to get people together to talk about it people just throw their hands up and say, ‘forget it, nothing is working here.’ Instead, we should be starting in a place where you are able to accomplish small win-win changes because those are going to create all the changes that down the road we will all eventually agree with.
FT: What would be an example of one of those bigger changes that ended up falling flat?
BW: A great one is the Smarter Lunchroom Movement. The view about eight years ago was that there should only be healthy options in the lunchroom. That there should not be foods like cookies, chocolate milk, and hamburgers. The sentiment was that if only healthy options were provided, kids would be forced to choose those foods, but that didn’t work. Instead, kids brought cheetos and pizza from home. Many school lunchrooms already had healthy options available, so the challenge was to figure out how to get kids to take that instead of the cookie or the chocolate milk. All the while keeping that stuff there, so that if they want it they can eventually have it. There is no need to revolt against the system because they can have what they want.
FT: What is one small change a person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
BW: Use a smaller dinner plate. Our research has shown that on a day-to-day basis simply using a plate that is between 9 to 10 inches is leading people to serve less on average by about 15 to 20 percent. This has the effect of ends making people believe they are just as full, because in their mind they ate a whole plate of food. Also, putting a fruit bowl on your counter ends up influencing how much fruit people eat. One of the findings we highlighted in Slim By Design was that the average person who has a fruit bowl on their counter weighs about 13 pounds less than their neighbor that doesn’t.
Twenty-five years of research has shown me that when it comes to food it is easier to change your environment than change your mind. If you want to eat more fruit it is easier to put a fruit bowl on the table than it is to develop a checklist for eating fruit. If you want to end up serving less food it is easier to use a smaller plate than it is to remind yourself to eat 20-percent less. Our environment has a large impact on us, so it is up to each of us to engineer an environment that has a positive effect. If people believe that food desserts do not allow people to eat enough healthy food, then one simple change is to encourage the places that do sell food to place bananas or apples next to the registers, all of the sudden they see themselves making a lot of extra money. Now, something that was seen as a contributing factor the problem is able to be part of the solution rather than being legislated. These are very easy changes that have marked impacts on us.
The NYC Food Tank Summit is now Sold Out. Register HERE to watch the livestream on Facebook. A few tickets remain for the Summit Dinner at Blue Hill Restaurant with a special menu from Chef Dan Barber. Apply to attend HERE. If you live in New York City, join us on September 14 for our FREE outdoor dance workout led by Broadway performers called Garjana featuring many great speakers raising awareness about food waste issues. Register HERE.