Full disclosure: I feel vindicated by the study I am about to report. Years ago I was the “dietitian parent” in the school booster club suggesting that healthier foods be offered at the concession stand during sports and other events, only to be shot down by those who were worried about the bottom line. “Healthy food won’t sell” was the response, time and time again.
Booster clubs all over the country raise money to support the sports programs and other extracurricular activities that schools can’t otherwise afford. Their revenue is critical, and you really can’t blame them for not wanting to experiment with a reliable income-generator like a concession stand.
But at Muscatine High School in Iowa, the booster club took a chance and let researchers from Cornell University fiddle with their concession stand menu.
The gamble paid off, and out of it came two successful strategies for improving the nutritional offerings of concession stand foods: 1) offer five to 10 healthy options, and 2) make the ingredients of popular food items healthier.
We still sell hot dogs, we still sell pizza, we still sell candy bars. But everything in life is about choices, and it’s important to put choices out there that meet everybody’s needs and wants, and more people, it seems, want to lead healthier lives.
For two consecutive fall sports seasons, researchers collected revenue and sales data from the concession stand at the high school. No changes were made to the menu during the first season, but eight new healthier choices were added during the second season: a grilled chicken sandwich, carrots and dip, trail mix, granola bars, string cheese, pickles, apples, and soft pretzels. The standard fare remained on the menu.
In addition, changes were made to two popular food items to make them healthier. Trans fats were eliminated from the nacho cheese sauce; and the popcorn, previously popped in coconut oil, was prepared instead with canola oil that was saturated- and trans fat-free.
Economic disaster did not strike. When all the numbers were crunched by researchers from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, concession stand sales and revenues remained stable. The new healthier items accounted for 9.2 percent of total sales, and sales of the healthier foods increased from game to game. Overall income increased by 4 percent.
Despite the preparation changes, sales of the nachos and popcorn increased by 8 percent. The new foods that sold the best were the chicken sandwiches and the pretzels, which accounted for 7.6 percent of all food sales.
Student satisfaction with the foods offered at the concession stand was not affected by the addition of healthier choices, and parental satisfaction increased.
“If you’re a concession-stand sponsor, and you want people to eat better, and you want to make money, add at least five healthy items,” advises Brian Wansink, the Cornell lab’s director and a professor of marketing. “There’s got to be a critical mass, and we find that five’s a very lucky number, and ten is even better.”
Kate Hansen, the president of the Muscatine booster club during the study, agreed, “I think what it comes down to is people want to have choices. We still sell hot dogs, we still sell pizza, we still sell candy bars. But everything in life is about choices, and it’s important to put choices out there that meet everybody’s needs and wants, and more people, it seems, want to lead healthier lives.”
Perhaps my own concession stand reform efforts were just ahead of their time.
The study is published in the Journal of Public Health.