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Summit Elementary students urged to make better food choices

A cardboard cutout of a costumed, cartoon dog promoted white milk as the best choice to K-8 students making their way through a lunch line.

First-graders Emma Krieger and Hailey Huff liked the suggestion, both choosing white milk over strawberry or chocolate. “I felt it was healthier,” said Huff, 6. “Tomorrow, I’m going to have the same kind of milk.”

The dog is Captain Canine, a student-named mascot for a new lunch program that launched Monday at Summit School in Spokane Valley. The grant-funded Smarter Lunchroom Design pilot program is a collaborative effort between Washington State University Spokane County Extension Food Sense, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and participating Washington school districts.

Summit is one of 23 schools statewide using strategic marketing to help kids make better food choices. University and Progress elementary schools in Central Valley School District will start the program next week.

“It’s a nudge, not a shove,” said Denise Kwate, a Central Valley School District nutrition services supervisor. Often students are told they “have to take fruit. I want to create an environment where students want to take the fruit and eat the fruit because the fruit is good for them.”

The concept is based on a study that shows creative naming, signage, displays and a little persuasion leads kids to think about what they eat. For example, researchers at Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition found creative naming and display of vegetables increased selection from 40 to 70 percent.

Additionally, students are 11 percent more likely to choose a promoted item if they still have all the same choices.

Some of the marketing is more overt, such as signs positioned around the cafeteria that show kids good and bad food items. “Slushies are not good for you,” said Krieger, 7, pointing to a poster on the wall.

Servers will also have a chance to influence decisions with verbal cues, such as “Do you want to try the roasted chicken?”

Not all schools participating in the Smarter Lunchroom program will have a mascot. But Spokane organizers thought it would give students a role model.

“We held a contest to name a mascot,” said Raeann Ducar, Food Sense coordinator. “Doing a contest gets a buy-in from students.”

Captain Canine will be moved around the cafeteria to promote different items.

Gregory Allen, a Summit School fifth-grader, won the contest by coming up with Captain Canine. A Disney movie, “Super Buddies,” inspired him.

The 11-year-old thinks having a mascot is “kind of a good idea so kids can start eating healthier.”

Superheroes are big with kids and “if you are going to promote things, you have to make them fun.”