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Paying Kids to Eat School Lunch Could Result in Less Wasted Food and Money

Dec 17, 2013 04:58 PM EST
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Paying a child for doing chores or for good grades can be good motivation to for them to learn the values of responsibility and studying hard, but what about paying them to eat their fruits and veggies?

A new study by researchers at Brigham Young University and Cornell University assessing how schools transition to a new federal standard that requires one full serving of fruits and vegetables to be provided on school cafeteria trays each day found that 70 percent of those food items were thrown away uneaten.

The revelation was as disappointing nutritionally as it was financially. The fruit and vegetable serving mandate put $5.4 million worth of food on school cafeteria trays nationwide, but the nation's students threw $3.8 million of that into the garbage can every day, as reported in the journal Public Health and Nutrition.

The researchers contend that paying the students to eat their fruits and vegetables is actually cheaper than allowing the food to be discarded.

In the Journal of Human Resources, a follow-up study to the food-cost versus waste research sought to measure the effect of small rewards in the lunchroom. Regardless of whether the reward for eating the fruits and vegetables served was a nickle, a quarter or a raffle ticket for a larger prize, the results were generally the same in 15 different school lunch rooms tested: consumption of fruits and vegetables rose by 80 percent and waste declined by 33 percent.

The results speak to the effectiveness of offering a reward for eating healthy foods.

"Parents are often misguided about incentives," said Joe Price, a professor of economics at BYU. "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."

However there are strong arguments against implementing such reward systems. In his 1999 book "Punished by Rewards," independent scholar Alfie Kohn observed that reward systems can crush internal motivation. Kohn might argue that by offering a reward to children who eat their fruits and vegetables, it will prevent them from developing their own motivation to eat things that are good for them. Another danger, referred to as the boomerang effect, would equate to children eating less fruits and vegetables when the reward disappears.

To measure for these potentially adverse reactions to the reward system, the researchers measured fruit and vegetable consumption before and after the reward studies. After the children stopped receiving a reward for eating fruits and vegetables, they typically returned to their normal eating habits, revealing no lasting improvement, but also no boomerang effect, either.

A future study by Price will measure whether a longer period of rewarding kids for healthy eating will result in lasting changes in eating habits.

"I don't think we should give incentives such a bad rap," Price said. "They should be considered part of a set of tools we can use."

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