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Students from Toronto’s Central Technical School enjoy lunch at Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. School bans on junk food have driven students to fast food restaurants at lunchtime.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Want to sell more apples at the school cafeteria? Don't showcase a steel bowl that looks like it was repurposed from the science lab. Instead, place the fruit in something cheap and cheerful from Target, shine a bright light on it and watch the sales double. And rather than banishing pizza as if it were a gateway narcotic, bake it with whole-wheat crust and low-fat cheese, sprinkle vegetables that students have helped grow, and put a Domino's logo on it. They'll gobble it up.

Those are just a few of the wily, budget-friendly recommendations offered by a pivotal team of behavioural economists from Cornell University who are helping to overhaul cafeterias across the United States. Convinced by their research that a combination of sly merchandising and a teen's freedom to choose will better fight the obesity epidemic and encourage better eating habits, they advise avoiding paternalistic edicts and creating market demand.

Banning junk food – a social-engineering move they call a "default option" – will have the opposite effect, driving teens to Subway or Domino's. This week, Ontario's Auditor-General's report confirmed the researchers' findings. High-school principals in the three school boards surveyed complained that students were flocking to fast-food restaurants after the province introduced healthier food choices in 2010. As a result, cafeteria sales plunged by 25 to 45 per cent. Vending machine sales dropped by as much as 85 per cent. And those grim findings exclude metropolitan areas such as the GTA and Ottawa, where the reheated charms of fast food are all the more ubiquitous.

Psychologists call this kind of rebellion "reactance." If consumers – especially teenagers – are coerced to abstain from junk food, they'll do the opposite. "The thinking is, 'Now I'm going to take even more because I miss the freedom.' They will overcompensate," said Cornell's David Just who, along with his colleagues, is advising Florida, Michigan and Ohio, among other states, on how to stanch the student exodus from the cafeteria.

At Central Technical School, located in downtown Toronto, the healthy food initiative has turned the area into a hectic lunch-hour food court. Six of seven restaurants polled said that they have seen a spike in business since the province brought in new guidelines banning foods high in fat, sodium and sugar three years ago and replaced them with healthier options such as lean-meat patties on multigrain buns, or pizza slices with pallid, low-fat meats. Across from the school on Harbord Street, Krispy Kreme has expanded, offering tables and free Wi-Fi. "Students come here for dessert," said an employee, adding that they buy doughnuts only after a visit to the nearby Subway or Pizza Nova.

On Bloor Street West, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen is a wallop of clamour that rings in the ear and southern-fried smoke that embeds in the clothing. Despite the temperature, dozens of students have abandoned the school grounds for fried chicken that costs $3.99 for three pieces and a side of fries. The cafeteria, on the other hand, is the groaning board of teen scorn. "The food is not appealing or tasty," said 17-year-old Jennifer Aderi.

While some students complain that their cafeteria is not competitively priced, others say it's poorly heated, virtually empty, and stuck in the institutional doldrums with its long, rectangular tables.

The Toronto District School Board represents both a worst-case scenario and best foot forward. It projected that its cafeterias would lose $700,000 in 2012. It closed 32 cafeterias. Borrowing a strategy used by celebrity chefs like Britain's Jamie Oliver, however, it also enlisted Susur Lee to help launch My Food My Way, a program that includes students in the process of cafeteria makeovers, from the creation of menus to the decor. Two years ago, Vancouver's South Delta Secondary School also helped pioneer the wider effort to make students stakeholders in their lunch rooms. They work and eat in the school's cafeteria. They have class discussions about what's fresh. They go on fruit-picking trips.

Participation may help win students back. So will attribution, the antidote to reactance. "One of the main principles behind this is that if you give customers a choice, you win the hearts and minds," said Dr. Just. "You will value the choice more if it's offered to you."

Consider what happens if students are given the choice between carrots and celery. In an experiment at Cornell, 120 junior-high participants were told they must take carrots with their lunch, while another 120 were given the choice of carrots or celery. Almost 70 per cent of those required to take the carrots ate their portion, but 91 per cent of those who had a choice did.

Another solution lies in the marketing and presentation. The chocolate milk, for example, needn't be banished. Instead, stash it a little out of reach behind the white milk. And ensure that there is always a near-equal amount of white milk. "You don't want to look like a freak if you take it," said Dr. Just, who reported a 23-per-cent bump in purchases after that pint-sized sleight-of-hand.

He also said that a recent partnership with Domino's pizza using a whole-grain crust also proved popular. While it pretty much tasted the same as the cafeteria's own pie, the Domino's imprimatur made it cool. And if you have booth seating? Even cooler. "When you talk to kids and run focus groups, it becomes clear that anything that makes the cafeteria look like a fast-food restaurant will be promising."

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