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Can food that tastes good also be healthy and nutritious? Eating while young

Is nutritious food affordable and does it taste as good as unhealthy foods loaded with sugar, salt, fat, or bleached white wheat flour? After all, a specific combination of salt, sugar, and fats in various foods can be combined by manufacturers to hook people on the taste that triggers a craving to come back to buy more of the same food. Affordable nutritious food that tastes good is what inspired Dr. Joseph Skufca, associate professor of mathematics and computer science at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., and a longtime judge of the contest, to develop this year's M3 Challenge problem. The question, "Lunch Crunch: Can nutritious be affordable and delicious?" was posed to high school students in the annual applied math modeling contest organized by the Philadelphia-based Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.

Can food that tastes good also be healthy and nutritious?
Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

"Last year, our small, local school system of about 1,400 students lost more than $60,000 during the first semester because students were purchasing fewer meals under the new school lunch program," Skufca says, according to the March 10, 2014 news release, "Cafeteria conundrum: Can school lunches be nutritious, delicious, and affordable? "As a father, I also noticed that the taste of the new menu items was an issue for my children. As a mathematician, I saw that this was a situation where mathematics ought to be able to find a better solution. And who better to solve it than the true experts on this subject: kids?"

And what better platform to make that happen than the M3 Challenge, the annual online competition that presents students with a timely, real-world issue to which they can apply their mathematical prowess? Working in teams of 3-5, students from 45 states and Washington, D.C. were allotted 14 hours to create a mathematical model to determine a student's caloric requirements based on his or her individual attributes, such as the amount of physical activity and breakfast intake.

Students were asked to examine how effective the one-size-fits-all mandate of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act

Participants were also asked to examine the effectiveness of the so-called "one-size-fits-all" mandate of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act by determining the percentage of U.S. students who meet the definition of an "average" student and have their caloric needs met by program stipulations. In addition, participants developed a budget-friendly lunch plan to satisfy nutritional standards and students' palates. Solutions were presented in the form of a report to the USDA.

"Math models can certainly improve the economics of the school lunch program, but if the goal is to build life-long healthy eating habits, then we need to understand what makes the lunch experience enjoyable," Skufca says, according to the news release. "When we develop mathematical models of real world situations, we often face the challenge of needing to quantify and measure intangibles, such as ‘appeal' or ‘satisfaction'. Learning to overcome these creative challenges allows for significantly broader opportunities to apply mathematics to improve our world."

Eating while young

Six finalist teams, which will be announced April 7, will present their solutions to a panel of judges in New York City on April 28. Winning teams will be awarded shares of $125,000 by The Moody's Foundation. View the complete problem statement here at the M3 Challenge site. To learn more about the Challenge, visit the M3 Challenge site. You also may want to check out the site for the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.

Rather than removing the less healthy options at numerous concession stands, food managers can make better foods by using healthier ingredients and preparation methods that are nutrient dense rather than using bad fats, too much salt, too much bleached white wheat flour, or too much sugar for the ingredients. Would the cost be the same if healthier ingredients were substituted for what many concession stands prepare food with nowadays? For example, taste high school concession stand food.

Is there something that can be done to improve the healthfulness of high school concession stand food, and preserve the profits they generate? According to this new study the answer is yes. Co-author Brian Wansink of the Cornell Food & Brand Lab says, " You can check out the research, "Concession Stand Makeovers: A Pilot Study of Offering Healthy Foods at High School Concession Stands," Journal of Public Health Oxford Journals, (forthcoming in print, but published online March 12, 2014).

Offering healthier items can be good for both sales and satisfaction. Even though the new study emphasized concession stands, the principles can be carried over into other food retail settings. Authors of the study are: Laroche, H., Ford, C., Anderson, K., Cai, X., Just, D., Hanks, A., and Wansink, B. This study shows that "if you give people healthy foods they will buy them and be more satisfied," says Wansink, according to the March 14, 2014 news release, "Salad at concession stands?" Another Cornell Food and Brand Lab news article appears on this study in the March 14, 2014 issue of Science Daily.

Pep-rallies, the marching band, cheers and chants, and savory, indulgent foods sold at the concession stand are all beloved features of the American high school sports tradition. In contrast to the nutrition requirements on breakfast and lunches sold in school cafeterias, foods sold at concession stands do not follow the standard nutrition guidelines because they are typically sold for fundraising purposes. Is there something that can be done to improve the healthful features of concession stand food, and preserve the profits they generate?

Improving the nutritional quality of foods sold at concession stands

In this study published in the Journal of Public Health, Dr. Helena Laroche, an assistant professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at the University of Iowa, and her research team along with researchers from the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs (B.E.N. Center) identified two successful strategies for improving the nutritional quality of foods sold at concession stands: 1) offer 5-10 healthy food options 2) modify the ingredients of popular items to contain less saturated and trans fats.

Revenue and sales data from the concessions at Muscatine High School in Muscatine, IA were collected for two fall sports seasons one year apart. In the first season, no changes were made to the foods sold. In the second season, 8 new healthier foods were sold in addition to the standard foods offered. These foods included carrots, apples, a grilled chicken sandwich, and string cheese. Furthermore, the regular nacho cheese sauce was replaced with a no trans-fat variety and the popcorn was prepared with canola oil that has less saturated fat and no trans-fat compared to the coconut oil bars previously used.

Overall, the healthier items accounted for 9.2% of total sales, a clear indication of demand for these items

Sales of these items did increase from game to game suggesting increasing interest in these foods. Income also increased by 4% when the healthier items were sold. Sales of the modified nacho’s and popcorn increased by 8% despite the relatively healthier nature of the foods.

Finally, student satisfaction of the foods sold was not affected when the healthier foods were offered and parental satisfaction increased. These results reveal the opportunities available for concession stand operators to improve the nutritional quality of what they sell, while maintaining customer satisfaction and profit.

The researchers recommend adding 5-10 new healthful items to the concessions menu—“Adding variety, 5-10 new healthful items, will make it easier for customers to find something that they like. Try adding items such as, granola bars, fresh fruit, string cheese and mixed nuts. Rather than removing the less healthy options, make them using healthier ingredients and preparation methods-- patrons will still get the foods they love and they can feel better about eating them.” The study's results are published in a recent issue of Journal of Public Health.

You also may wish to check out another study from 2011, "Primary prevention of eating-related problems in the real world." You also might want to look at the sites for the Wellmark Foundation, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cafeteria food and school lunches: High school students use the power of math to deliver viable solutions for school districts

Here'a a conundrum: Can school lunches be nutritious, delicious, and affordable? More than 5,000 high school students from across the country dedicated this past weekend to solving the problem of funding nutritious school lunches that are tasty enough for kids to eat. Participants of Moody's Mega Math (M3) Challenge (2014 M3 Challenge Problem) used mathematically-founded insights to address concerns posed by government officials, school districts, and students. Close to 1,200 solutions were submitted for judging, which began on March 10, 2014.

This year's competition topic stems from concerns surrounding childhood nutrition and obesity, which have been in the spotlight since First Lady Michelle Obama announced her health and wellness platform for children and spearheaded passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which mandates healthy choices in school lunches. Just last month, the first lady joined U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to announce guidelines for school wellness policies. As with any new program, school districts have concerns, such as budgetary limitations and declining revenue from food services due to lack of food appeal.

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