Michael Walch

NYTimes Infographic – A Better Cafeteria

Posted in Economics, General Architecture by michaelwalch on 22 October, 2010

Things I love seeing and discussing:

  • Drawings
  • Infographics
  • Food choices
  • Retail design
  • Economics

The New York Times rolled them all into one very interesting Flash interaction today.  It’s just an isometric line drawing of a cafeteria and a few rollovers, but it explains some (design?) concepts of how to lay out school cafeterias and lunch lines to encourage healthier choices without being didactic.  It’s a very clear presentation of some simple but potentially very effective ideas.  Check it out.

I do have a critique of the feasibility of even these simple-seeming challenges.  Firstly, it shouldn’t be assumed that people running school cafeterias can choose what they serve to kids – despite some laudable activism from parents, teachers, and others, cafeteria menus are generally dictated by USDA guidelines and programs, which are heavily influenced by fast food and agri-business lobbyists.  Similarly, I think there are a lot of people working in schools who really care about these issues and would support this type of change, but there are powerful economic factors at play too.  Removing vending machines from schools (or even altering their selection) has repeatedly failed because the vendors – Coca-Cola, Pepsi, etc. – often give substantial donations to the cash-strapped schools in exchange for access to campus and the student body.

The strength of these ideas is their simplicity.  Changing the way food (and ‘food-like products’ to borrow from Michael Pollan) is displayed in a cafeteria is exactly analogous to every grocery store aisle in the world.  Unfortunately, the healthy meal options tend to have lower margins (less processing and packaging), and the marketing studies are never done, let alone implemented as they try to compete for prominence on the supermarket – or school cafeteria – shelf.  I love the idea that good marketing and retail design informed by common sense can finally be used to guide kids to better, instead of worse, choices.  Good luck!


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