A Schoolteacher Who Ate American School Lunches For A Year

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon one of the most interesting blogs I have seen in a long time: Fed Up With Lunch. The blog is about a school teacher, who happened to forget her lunch one day and had to buy a school lunch, discovered the horrific quality of the food being served to the children.


When I visited, it turned out she had just released a book which I bought immediately since I had seen a few episodes of Jamie Oliver’s School Lunches and Jamie’s Food Revolution (two shows focused on improving school nutrition in the UK and US respectively). This book seemed even better, because Mrs. Q (now revealed as Sarah Wu) took on the task to eat school lunch everyday for a full year, documenting all the meals that were served through writing and photos.

This is an absolutely amazing idea, because Mrs. Q overcomes the social projection bias, allowing her to understand the plight that school children are facing. Often times in marketing and psychology we talk about social projection bias (termed false consensus effect in earlier research). It is widely documented in social psychology that we really do not understand others due to an inherent bias to map our own experiences and preferences onto others. It happens everywhere.

In 1977, Ross, Greene and House conducted a classic study that exposed the false consensus effect where they gave participants four stories and asked, between two courses of action, what the protagonists would do at the end of it. They were asked to estimate the percentage of their peers who choose those answers. Then they were given a few distracter survey questions and then asked to choose the answer for themselves. The results showed that those who chose course of action A for a certain story gave higher percentages for choice action A in all four scenarios!

Our first year marketing students at Harvard Business School also show this bias. The marketing course always starts off with a marketing survey asking students to fill out a survey with questions that test certain preferences or behaviors (e.g. How many times have you ever posted a video on YouTube? or Rate how much you like to eat sushi?) Then we ask the students to answer the exact same questions but to mentally step into the shoes of everyone else in the class. So what would your colleagues say on average about the Youtube question or the sushi question? We did this with a variety of questions and ALL of them showed a systematic bias– a bias to estimate other people’s answers closer to their own. People who rated higher preferences for sushi estimated that the class had higher preferences for sushi. People who gave higher numbers for the youtube question estimated that the class had higher number of uploads than those who gave lower numbers for themselves. This makes sense that in a situation of no information, people use themselves as a data point to launch their estimations BUT this bias can be detrimental to fully grasping the magnitude of the plight of others like the students who eat horrible school lunches everyday.

There are two ways to overcome the social projection bias:

1)      You do it the old fashioned way, the way social ethnographers have done it for years. Go into a community and become one of the people you wish to study. Do what they do and integrate so that you can fully step into their shoes. This is the approach Mrs. Q has taken.

2)      But if you are male and you would like to understand how females feel when they head into a Sephora store, you can’t possibly step into the shoes of a female! This is where marketing research comes in. This can take the form of people reporting to you what you are asking them OR even better, you are gathering information about their behavior without them even realizing it since what people say can often times be counter to what they actually do.

This bias is so troubling, that it has enabled us to form double standards for the food we eat and the food our children eat at school. Many people wrote to Mrs. Q over the course of the year inquiring about her health eating all this junk food at school… I found myself sympathizing for her misery as well. However, Mrs. Q responded with such a powerful statement that I realize how psychologically blind we are towards people unlike us. She said something along the lines of: the kids are eating this everyday so why are you worrying about me. I did not even feel any sort of concern towards the kids’ wellbeing until Mrs. Q mentioned it. Thank you Mrs. Q.

Grant Achatz: Food that Captures Childhood for Adults

I absolutely love these two warm videos of Grant Achatz, famous molecular gastronomist/chef from Chicago’s Alinea, showing his planning process for the Childhood Menu. Harvard University held a talk where Achatz showed how he achieved the burning logs effect seen in the video.

Unfortunately the YouTube videos have been taken down but please watch the lecture on lighting some edible logs on fire at the link below. 

I love seeing the kids work in parallel with the adults in this next video.

And here (from Grub Street)  is the talk about how Achatz uses a high proof spirit and maltodextrin to light his edible beet soaked logs on fire. Gorgeous.

Panera’s Non-Profit: Pay What You Want Store

Radiohead shocked the music industry with their 2007 album, In Rainbows, when they asked fans to download their album and pay whatever they wanted. Likewise, Panera shocked the restaurant industry with the opening of a branch in Missouri that utilizes the same “Pay What You Want” pricing mechanism!

The store in Missouri, opened by Panera’s non-profit St Louis Bread Co. Cares, has the exact same menu as all other Panera locations but lets customers pay for their meals according to their own judgment. A sign that reads “Take what you need, leave your fair share” is the basic guideline. Panera has also expanded this model over the last few months to more stores in Missouri. What sorts of effects will this have for the general Panera brand going forward and is this pricing scheme “sustainable” ( however you may define the term)?

“Social Corporate Responsibility” is a word that is thrown around quite a bit in the business world today. It’s good to be a green company or a company that enforces strict labor conditions. But is what Panera doing an act of social responsibility? No, Panera is being far from just responsible. With its Pay-What-You-Want stores, Panera is being flat out charitable. It is taking the huge risk of giving away its product like a soup kitchen out of a corporate moral desire. Given Panera’s large scale success in their segment Panera can afford to take on a project like this. It was likely also true that Radiohead didn’t have as much to risk as well being a band with one of the largest worldwide fanbases.

Sustainability of this project is not an issue for Panera, but do these “Pay-What-You-Want” stores add value to the company in anyway? Definitely. Hubspot, the pioneer of Inbound Marketing, a way to market to consumers using techniques that attract customers inbound rather interrupting them, says that companies can get a lot back from giving some things out. Sounds intuitive right?

From psychological research, we know that the reciprocity norm is a strongly embedded norm in all cultures. Evolutionary psychologists even have come to say that the reciprocity norm is the backbone of building strong societies over time. Simple as that: Only good things can come out of people who want to help others who help them who in turn help others and so on. It is a positive self-perpetuating cycle.

In a study by Dennis Regan, we see that the reciprocity norm is so strong that it can even overcome effects of social unlikeability. Participants were told that they were participating in an experiment on aesthetic judgments. The researcher served as an accomplice and either presented himself in a very likeable way or unlikeable way to certain participants. Participants then rated art slides. At the end of this task, the researcher either brought back a can of coke into the experiment room or a can for himself and the participant. Participants who were given a can of Coke at the end agreed to buy twice as many raffle tickets from the researcher after the experiment compared to those who were not given the Coke. This effect was present even when the researcher presented himself in a very unlikeable manner.

So Panera knows– it is not in people’s nature to free-ride. They also know that giving away their product is a form of trial, encourages word of mouth, encourages bloggers like me to talk about them, boosts their brand image and in turn comes back to them through new customers and purchases. This loop sounds pretty darn good especially if you are also doing some good for society in the process.

I love this article about the food ad video companies that make these crazy delicious food TV commercials. You can also view a video for the whole filming process for a scene on a pasta joint on this page:


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