Should Schools Pay Kids to Eat Healthier?

Incentives may work, but are they a good idea? What's an effective way to get kids to eat their fruits and vegetables? Pay them. A new study finds that a modest financial reward increases children's consumption during school lunch by 80 percent. Not only does this mean that kids eat better, it could save the country tens of millions of dollars each year.

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According to nutritional requirements enacted by the federal government in 2012, school lunches are required to include more fruits and veggies. But that doesn't mean that children are eating them. In a prior study, researchers from Brigham Young and Cornell universities found that the rules added $5.4 million worth of fruits and vegetables to school lunches per day. However, about two-thirds of that amount—or $3.8 million worth—ended up in the garbage can.

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The new study looked at whether small rewards might encourage kids to eat up, thereby cutting waste and improving nutrition. In separate weeklong experiments conducted in 15 schools, the researchers offered a nickel, a quarter, or a raffle ticket to kids for each serving of fruit or vegetables they consumed. (Potatoes, corn, and fruit juice were not included as part of the experiment.) It turns out, the size of the reward was inconsequential: In each case, the kids ate significantly more, and overall waste was reduced by about one-third. "Our results indicate that small incentives can dramatically increase fruit and vegetable consumption during school lunch. Incentives also increase the cost effectiveness of the money schools are already spending on fruits and vegetables by increasing the fraction of those items that actually get consumed," says co-author Joseph Price, a professor if economics at Brigham Young.

Addressing concerns that rewards might discourage kids from eating fruits and vegetables without being given an incentive, Price said, "Parents are often misguided about incentives. We feel a sense of dirtiness about a bribe. But rewards can be really powerful if the activity creates a new skill or changes preferences." He adds, "They should be considered part of a set of tools we can use." The study also looked at the kids' eating habits after the experiment, in order to see if there might be an immediate "boomerang effect," leading to fewer fruits and vegetables being eaten. And they found that once the rewards were removed, the schoolchildren reverted to their original eating patterns; there was no improvement or decrease.

Angela Lemond, a registered dietician and specialist in pediatric nutrition who is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, isn't convinced that the bribery is the right strategy. "We want to empower children to choose fruits and vegetables even when we are not around," she tells Yahoo Shine. She stresses teaching children that eating plant-based foods will help them achieve their goals and suggests that spelling out benefits like "running faster or helping with brain power" will have better long-term results.

"The reward of eating fruits and vegetables is feeling healthy, not money,"  Dr. Karen Ruskin, a family therapist and parenting expert tells Yahoo Shine. "Money and food should not go together." Ruskin doesn't believe that cash rewards will enhance a child's overall relationship to food. She emphasizes that kids should feel in control of their choices and "learn healthy eating habits as a way of life."

In order to help children develop healthy preferences, Lemond suggests keeping fruits and vegetables around the house in ready-to-eat, snackable form. She adds, "Model the type of eating you would like to see in your kids. Don't just talk about it. Kids often do what we do rather than do what we say."

Price and his co-author, David Just of Cornell, point out that not every family has access to an array of fresh fruits and vegetables. For low-income kids, especially, the fruits and vegetables provided by the school lunch might be their only access. "The potential benefits of these opportunities will only be realized if these children actually eat the healthy items being offered." The team is now conducting a study to look at whether five weeks of rewards might improve long-term eating habits.

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