If you gave kids the choice between white milk and sugary chocolate- or strawberry-flavored milk to drink with their school lunch, do you think they would make the healthier choice? Without some persuasive education first, probably not.

However, Dave Pittman, PhD, psychology professor at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, not only believes that with a little education kids will make the sounder choice—he has proven it in pilot tests in two local elementary schools.

“We measured the percent of students choosing the healthy menu items plus white milk for 9 days (baseline) before our program and 9 days after our program (incentive). Before our program, less than 3% of both schools were choosing the healthy lunch with white milk. After our program, over 40% of the students were choosing the healthy meal plus white milk each day,” Pittman shares on his website, www.healthyeatingdecisions.com.

Pittman has been given a grant by two foundations in the Spartanburg area to broaden his Healthy Eating Decisions program from two schools to 40 elementary schools with 20,000 students in Spartanburg County.

The program calls for students to choose one of three entrées on the menu, multiple side items and either white or flavored milk. First, they are shown an educational video on how to make healthy food choices.

For example, on the video educating kids about which milk choice is the healthiest, Pittman shows kids literally what the chocolate- and strawberry-milk choices equate to in pounds of sugar per year (5 and 7 pounds, respectively). Jars containing these amounts of sugar—one marked “chocolate” and the other “strawberry”—are placed in the cafeteria of each school near the milk choices, to remind kids about choosing healthy options. You can view this video and others he has developed here: www.healthyeatingdecisions.com/.

Each day, Pittman’s program identifies the healthiest of the daily choices offered by the schools’ food service. When students make healthy decisions, they gain public recognition—they ring a call bell in the cafeteria, acknowledging to their fellow students that they made a healthy choice.

“The simple act of ringing a call bell provides a moment of attention that instills a sense of pride within the student for having made a healthy eating decision and reminds the other students that their school values daily healthy eating decisions,” Pittman says.

“Childhood overweight and obesity prevalence is above 30% for elementary students in Spartanburg County,” he adds. “We believe that our program has the potential to reduce childhood obesity by promoting healthier eating decisions during the regular elementary lunch service.”

The professor is so confident of the effectiveness of his program that he has put it on his website and made it available to any school system in the nation, at no charge. The new grant will allow Pittman to hire a pediatric dietitian, with 20 years’ experience, to offer an independent assessment of what constitutes healthy lunch choices at individual schools in Spartanburg County.