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Hey, BU — What’s for Lunch?

Prof’s survey looks at how we choose the foods we do

CAS Assistant Professor Joan Walker wants to create a mathematical model to describe the way we choose our lunch and what fruits and vegetables we eat.

It’s noon and you’re faced with one of the day’s tough decisions: what to eat for lunch.

Joan Walker, a College of Arts and Sciences assistant professor of geography and environment, is researching how people choose lunch and the servings of fruits and vegetables they eat. She wants to create a mathematical model describing the way an individual decides whether to eat sushi and an apple at the GSU or to join friends for pizza at Bertucci’s.

Walker has created an online survey about the lunch options and nutritional choices available to Charles River Campus students, faculty, and staff. She plans to identify the factors — friends, location, menu offerings, money, time, personal history — that influence an individual’s choice.

She and her team are looking for members of the BU community, 18 years of age and older, to take the 10-minute survey.

“We want to understand the factors that influence healthy eating and determine what the barriers are to choosing something that’s good for you,” says Walker. “I want to see how changing some small thing — for instance, making it cheaper to get fruits and vegetables or making them more accessible — would affect people’s nutritional choices.”

Walker’s previous work includes modeling the ways people choose their commuter routes, their homes, their automobiles, and their travel itineraries. A faculty member at BU’s Center for Transportation Studies, she also is looking at transportation modeling in China. The National Science Foundation has awarded her a $450,000 CAREER award for her work in behavioral modeling.

Walker blends different statistical techniques with the aim of making her models more psychologically revealing than some others in use. Her modeling may incorporate information about an individual’s income and household situation along with more personal factors that influence decisions, such as friends’ attitudes, knowledge of nutrition, and the time and money a person has on a given day.

“Modeling human behavior like this adds behavioral richness,” says Walker, who brings her lunch to work most days to make sure it’s both nutritional and tasty.

Jeana Frost, a former BU postdoctoral fellow, works with Walker on the nutritional choice project. John Cook, a MED associate professor of pediatrics, and Vivien Morris (SPH’99), a MED assistant professor of pediatrics, are team members on the project, which is funded by a Special Program for Research Initiation Grant from the Office of the Provost. Graduate research assistants Jieping Li and Nick Poulos also are working on the project.

Participants in the survey are automatically entered in a drawing for a $100 gift certificate to Amazon.com. They may also find themselves eating healthier just by taking the survey.

“I notice that just by studying how people make nutritional choices, I’m now eating better,” says Walker. “We’re supposed to have between five and nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and it’s shocking how easy it is to get a meal that doesn’t include any.”