Here’s an update on a story I shared with you last February:
Back then, I told you how a team of researchers had examined four published studies by the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and had raised a number of serious concerns about the studies’ data. (For a full discussion, see New York magazine’s “A Popular Diet-Science Lab Has Been Publishing Really Shoddy Research.“)
One of the four papers analyzed happened to be related to the Cornell Food and Brand Lab’s “Smarter Lunchrooms” program, an initiative which promises that subtle changes in the school cafeteria – such putting fruit in attractive bowls or giving vegetables cute names (e.g.,”X-ray carrots”) – can subconsciously “nudge” children into making healthier choices. This particular study reportedly contained errors ranging from simple math mistakes to reported standard deviations that were off by a factor of 100. Jordan Anaya, the researcher who wrote a Medium post about his analysis, said that “an entire post could be written just on the inappropriate methodology and statistical tests used in this paper.”
Now Eric Robinson, a senior lecturer at the University of Liverpool, has dug even deeper into Smarter Lunchrooms data.
In a new study, Robinson reviewed ten of the lab’s papers specifically relating to the cafeteria initiative and said he found “multiple instances of errors and inconsistencies in research studies,” including one study where three different numbers (147, 115, 113) were used to describe the same sample size. He also found instances in which Smarter Lunchroom research had been “described in a way (‘spun’) that resulted in Smarter Lunchrooms intervention approaches appearing more effective than they objectively were.”
It’s important to note that Robinson’s study has not yet been peer-reviewed or published. But his findings are consistent with the earlier analyses, and his conclusion about misleading “spin” echoes my own review of a Cornell Food and Brand Lab study (about moms who research food ingredients online) back in 2014. As I described fully in this TLT post, that study was not only poorly designed, the lab’s director, Dr. Brian Wansink, had made a number of public statements about its data which were, in my opinion, seriously misleading.
To date, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has spent $8.4 million to directly fund the Smarter Lunchrooms research and implementation, and another $10 million in grants to help schools put the Smarter Lunchroom principles into practice. The agency also now requires schools to implement some Smarter Lunchroom techniques in order to qualify as “HealtherUS Schools,” and the Obama-era federal rule on local wellness policies specifically informs school districts that
at a minimum, FNS [the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service] expects [districts] to review “Smarter Lunchroom” tools and strategies, which are evidence-based, simple, low-cost or no-cost changes that are shown to improve student participation in the school meals program while encouraging consumption of more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes, and decreasing plate waste.
It remains to be seen whether the USDA will take a second look at the Smarter Lunchrooms program in light of Robinson’s study.
Do you love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Follow TLT on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram! You can also subscribe to Lunch Tray posts, and be sure to download my FREE 50-page guide, “How to Get Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom.”