ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
We see it all the time at the grocery store whether we realize it or not, a sales tactic called nudging. Maybe 12 packs of soda are stacked in a pyramid up front or tortilla chips and salsa are placed together on a shelf at the end of the aisle.
Making food easier to reach and nicer to look at encourages people to buy it. And now research shows you can also nudge low-income people toward healthy choices at the food bank. Courtney Collins from member station KERA in Dallas has the story.
COURTNEY COLLINS, BYLINE: Walking into Sharing Life Community Outreach in Mesquite, Texas is like walking into a small grocery store. The two-aisle food pantry has more on the shelves than canned goods and dried beans. There's chicken, cauliflower, fresh berries, even bunches of bright green herbs like cilantro.
SHELECIA MORRIS: OK. Cilantro, I want some cilantro, yeah.
COLLINS: This is not at all what you'd imagine a food pantry to be like. Shelecia Morris bypasses the typical bread, cookies and potatoes and instead loads up on eggs, poultry and fruit. She's been to Sharing Life many times and eats better because of it.
MORRIS: Usually I look at the different brands that they have like the organic. I found out that it's very good. It's been very good so far. So that's what I kind of try to eat - as healthy as I can with what I can get.
COLLINS: One swap Morris recently made? Whole wheat pasta instead of regular.
MORRIS: It just looked good. I said, well, why not?
COLLINS: Whole wheat pasta just happens to be one of the foods Sharing Life is nudging. It's got a prominent spot on the shelf where it's easy to see and grab. And little signs touting its health benefits hang nearby. They explain how whole grains may improve cholesterol and lower the risk of diabetes. Teresa Jackson is executive director of Sharing Life.
TERESA JACKSON: So our goal is to try to educate them and not just shove a package of whole wheat spaghetti in their car and say try to deal with this. Because we know it tastes different and we know that sometimes kids and even adults are not happy with change. But we want them to understand why we want them to take this product.
COLLINS: Sharing Life and a dozen other food pantries in Texas, New Jersey and Colorado participated in a study by Cornell University and Feeding America, where Christine Rivera is a registered dietitian. Here's how she describes a nudge.
CHRISTINE RIVERA: Cues that help us make decisions, especially in our food environment.
COLLINS: For the study, a short list of foods to encourage was compiled, including...
RIVERA: Whole wheat bread, oatmeal, onions, oranges, carrots and cabbage.
COLLINS: Cabbage bins were elevated so people wouldn't have to stoop to grab the vegetable. Glossy photos of oranges were hung in food pantry waiting areas. Boxes of oatmeal were stacked next to a sign that said fills you longer, in English and Spanish.
The end result? It worked. Across the board, nudging led to a 46 percent increase in people taking home at least one of the featured foods. In Mesquite, Teresa Jackson with Sharing Life Community Outreach says they were wowed by what they found.
JACKSON: At the beginning of the project, we only had about 14 percent of our clients willingly taking the brown rice and the brown pasta. They were not interested in it. But after we created these nudges, it went from 14 to 44.
COLLINS: And Shelecia Morris is proud to count herself as one of the converts.
MORRIS: I really appreciate just being able to come in to get food because, you know, sometimes you don't know what you - where you going to get it from.
COLLINS: People living in poverty don't always have a lot of choices when it comes to putting food on the table, which means healthy options can change mealtime and wellness for the entire family. For NPR News, I'm Courtney Collins in Dallas.
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