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Should schools pay kids to eat their fruits and vegetables?

Published: Monday, Dec. 30 2013 1:00 p.m. MST

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

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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."

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