Customers at a Los Angeles lonchera — a Latin American food truck — can order carnitas, quesadillas and burritos. Why not their government-recommended daily serving of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains?
A recent project of the RAND Corporation recruited 11 lonchera owners to modify their menus to include at least one meal that meets the federal MyPlate standards: 1 cup of vegetables, a half cup of fruit, 1 to 5 ounces of whole grains, no more than 3 ounces of meat or an equivalent source of protein, and about a cup of dairy (yogurt, milk or cheese). Researchers wanted to know how receptive food truck owners were to adopting healthier options, how profitable they could be, and whether they’d be popular among customers.
“Knowing we have a government that doesn’t necessarily care about what people are faced with and all the obstacles they have to overcome to stay healthy, I wanted to explore the possibility that food outlets would voluntarily provide options that don’t make people sick,” says Deborah Cohen, the lead author on the RAND study. Cohen wrote the 2014 book “A Big Fat Crisis: The Hidden Forces Behind the Obesity Epidemic — and How We Can End It.”
Before the study, researchers found, most of the loncheras were serving way too much meat for the national guidelines (6 ounces or more, double the daily recommendation), not enough fruits and vegetables, and refined grains instead of whole ones. Overall, an estimated 94 percent of all meals in the most popular U.S. chain restaurants don’t meet national dietary guidelines. Cohen says while consumers are free to make their own choices, when food providers only serve options out of line with nutritional standards, they put customers at risk.
“Human nature is such that people don’t make their food decisions thinking of the long term. They make it on impulse,” she says. “The way to stop the obesity epidemic and prevent chronic diseases is to change the food environment, because we can’t change human nature.”
The intractable nature of habit was evidenced in the study. Of the 464 lonchera owners contacted by mail to participate in the study, none responded, and of the 23 ultimately enrolled, many had not changed their menus in 20 years. Over the course of the project, three dropped out because they considered the program too much of a burden. Two more lost contact with researchers; four had to be excluded because they failed to renew their business licenses; one sold his business and another shuttered because of truck troubles.
The remaining owners received ample support to make the menu changes. Bilingual nutritionists helped them develop over 50 new meal options that met the MyPlate guidelines, and the researchers offered free photography and posters to advertise the new meals. Participating owners also received $2 coupons to give to customers to incentivize purchases, help creating and updating Yelp pages, and a $250 incentive.
The resulting meals were colorful, healthful and well-liked among customers who tried them. Over 95 percent of 488 customers surveyed said the MyPlate meals — or Comida Perfecta in Spanish — “looked tasty.” Of those who bought one, 97 percent said they’d recommend them to others and 97 percent said they’d buy them again.
But again, habit reigned. The majority of customers said they ate at their particular lonchera at least once a week, and nearly 60 percent said they ordered their “usual” or came to the lonchera to order a specific item. The meals weren’t as popular at the taquerias or seafood trucks, which customers mostly visited for smaller snacks. The healthy meals were more popular in white-collar business and residential areas, and less in industrial parts of town. The biggest complaint, somewhat ironically, was that the healthy meals offered too much food.
In all, researchers estimated La Comida Perfecta meals made up about 2 percent of sales, roughly equivalent to other meal options, but lonchera owners reported selling a higher percentage and many told researchers they believed the meals had helped attract new customers. Ultimately, 75 percent said they’d keep offering the new meals, according to RAND.
To Cohen, the study proves that providing at least one healthy option doesn’t need to be difficult. But absent the kind of incentives these food trucks received, she thinks legislative action is necessary.
“We’ve done this on every other public health issue,” she says, citing requirements for air bags and seat belts in cars, and rigorous building standards for houses. “Most restaurants won’t make changes voluntarily.” A regulation could require that restaurants offer just one meal that meets MyPlate standards, she posits.
“Just one meal that doesn’t put you at risk of chronic disease. I mean how hard would that be?” she asks. “All of these loncheras could do it.”
But her own study doesn’t quite bear that out. Many owners ended up serving too much meat, or insufficient fruits or veggies, or had difficulty sourcing whole grain products, especially whole wheat burrito-size tortillas. Some found brown rice too hard to make correctly, and that customers wanted the white rice anyway, “so they ended up throwing away most of the brown rice at the end of the day,” the study notes. It does not note the cost of the wasted product.
The cost estimates also do not take into account additional labor, like sticking to stricter measurements or slicing and sourcing fresh fruits. Cohen recognizes that some of the requirements could be loosened in order to increase participation: Loncheras could use dried fruits instead of fresh, and the dairy requirement could be cut — it was hard to make culturally appropriate dairy additions to ceviche, anyway.
Cohen’s observation that customers are swayed by their food environment also shows up in the study in the dubious statement that consumers are swayed by “superficial characteristics like quantity, price, placement of food on menus and menu boards or other contextual factors of which individuals may not be consciously aware.” Item placement superficial? Absolutely. But quantity and price? Hardly irrelevant to budget-constrained consumers.
Still, Cohen insists, “I don’t think it’s as big a burden as people are making it sound.” Food trucks and other restaurants are already held to stringent hygiene standards. If they were required to serve at least one nutritionally sound meal, Cohen says regulators could check up on that too. Staff turnover also contributed to drifting adherence to the healthy recipes; better training could help.
If it worked, it could have big implications. There were 2,580 licensed food trucks in L.A. in 2013, and an estimated 2,000 unlicensed ones, not to mention the 26,000 restaurants. Customers would just need to be willing to try something new.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.