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Should schools pay kids to eat their fruits and vegetables?

BYU and Cornell researchers showed you can reduce food waste at school by giving kids small incentives to eat their fruits and vegetables.
BYU and Cornell researchers showed you can reduce food waste at school by giving kids small incentives to eat their fruits and vegetables.

America's students had never seen so many healthy choices on the school lunch menu before the federal government revamped the program last year to include more fruits and vegetables. Under the guidelines, each child must take at least one fruit or vegetable with lunch.

The schools' garbage cans had never seen so many fruits or veggies, either, according to researchers from BYU and Cornell who watched how several schools embraced the new standards.

While the new rules put an extra $5.4 million worth of fruits and vegetables a day on the menu for school kids, children have responded by throwing away about $3.8 million worth daily, found Brigham Young University associate professor of economics Joe Price and Cornell associate professor of behavioral economics David Just when they studied what was happening to consumption patterns.

So they did a second study to test a solution: "Pay" students with small incentives to eat at least one fruit or vegetable helping. They wanted to test whether the strategy would eliminate waste and make kids more apt to eat healthful food. The researchers randomly assigned schools an incentive, such as a nickel, a quarter, or a raffle ticket that children could claim on each of five days — if they ate their fruit or vegetable.

Regardless of the prize, the results were similar in all 15 schools where they tested the incentives: Consumption jumped by 80 percent, and tossed fruits and veggies declined by 33 percent. Kids responded to the incentives.

The first study, on whether kids chew — or eschew — all those new, healthful offerings is published in December's peer-reviewed journal "Public Health Nutrition." The second study, on the effects of payment, will be in the upcoming Journal of Human Resources.

A laudable goal

"We were motivated to do this because lots of low-income children are not eating fruits and vegetables at home," said Price. The hope was that children would form the habit at school of eating fruits and vegetables.

And while they were being paid, they did eat them. But when the researchers returned after the incentives were over to see if the eat vs. dump ratio had changed in any lasting way, they found it hadn't. About a third of students were eating fruits and vegetables before the experiment and about a third were eating them after, Price said.

"To me, this study goes a long way to show that you have to not just make it available, but you have to motivate kids to eat it," said Just.

He knows something about that motivation. He is affiliated with the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Program, which has a long history of lunchroom redesign that makes it easier to entice kids to eat the healthy foods available to them.

"I don't expect any time soon there will be a clamor at school to bribe kids to eat fruits and veggies. ... but in other work, we have found lots of ways to get children to want to eat them on their own without beating them over the head," Just said.

Choosing fruits and veggies

Schools can make certain foods attractive and available, he said, but kids can see through efforts that involve forcing the choice. They will always revolt against being forced to do something, he noted, even when it's what to eat. He tells of a school in New York that limited the number of ketchup packets kids could take in an effort to reduce sugar intake. At graduation, as seniors reached for their diplomas, they each handed the principal a ketchup packet. It was the culmination of other protests throughout the year.

Choice is always better, said Just. "When we make our own choice, we always value it more than if we had gotten the same thing without choosing it."

He told of an experiment he conducted at a 4-H camp in which he gave half the kids carrots and let the other half choose between carrots and celery. The latter group consumed more carrots than the group that had carrots handed to them.

Because the incentives in the just-published study were offered for only five days — not long enough to get children to form a habit — the researchers have since launched another study to see what will happen if they provide incentives for a five-week stretch. Those results are not in yet, Price said.

Are incentives bad?

"There's some talk about incentives being bad, that it removes intrinsic motivation for kids," Price said. "I think what should come out of this is parents and others consider incentives as part of a broad set of tools to promote positive behaviors in children. Any school could do what we did and could do it much cheaper."

Schools could provide extra recess, more free time or a fun assembly, for instance, Price said, adding that at home, "parents have a lot of incentives available."

But from an economic standpoint, even cash incentives seemed cheaper than paying for all those wasted fruits and veggies, Just said.

The Cornell center has come up with a number of changes that are free or have a one-time cost associated, according to Just. It's free to come up with attractive names for the fruits and vegetables or to put them in different, more alluring places in the food line. Those are among the changes that can be made for about $30 or less that make a real difference. And if it looks good and children feel like they're making a choice, they eat it, he said.

Price thinks that requiring the fruit or vegetable be placed on a child's tray leads to a lot of waste, but he understands its value, too. "I think that's an important guideline. We should be providing healthy food. But we have to be creative to make sure they wind up in the tummy and not in the trash."

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