Paying children to eat fruit and vegetables increases consumption and cuts waste in schools, a study by researchers from Cornell and Brigham Young universities finds.
But whether money changing hands is a good incentive for healthy eating remains a debated question — for one, at the Produce for Better Health Foundation.
The study on children at 15 Utah elementary schools by David Just and Joseph Price, “Using Incentives to Encourage Healthy Eating in Children,” was published in The Journal of Human Resources.
Rewards for eating at least one serving of fruits or vegetables were 5 cents, 25 cents or prizes in separate groups of children surveyed at five lunches over two to three weeks. Some got them immediately; others had to wait two weeks.
On average, any incentive at all increased the share of children eating at least one serving from 33.6% to 61.3%. The amount of produce thrown away was reduced by 0.11 servings per child — a 33% drop.
The incentive program, if implemented, would add $42 for each student to the cost of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. The federal program costs $50 to $75 annually per student for a serving of fruits or vegetables as a daily snack. The incentives function mainly by reducing waste, according to the researchers.
Reaction to the concept at the foundation’s Fruit & Veggies — More Matters Facebook page is largely negative. Most of the 18 comments posted Dec. 27-30 reject such incentives or express doubts.
Elizabeth Pivonka, president and chief executive officer of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, had her own doubts.
“On one hand, I’m supportive of almost anything that will help kids eat more fruits and vegetables,” she said. “If it gets them to try something that they hadn’t tried, and they like it, they’ll eat it for the rest of their lives. And of course we don’t want to waste the good fruits and vegetables that are being served in school lunch.
“On the other hand … I’d be interested in researching incentives that don’t cost anything, like extra recess or a non-snow snow day.”
Price, an associate professor of economics at Brigham Young University, was a speaker at the foundation’s annual conference in 2012.
“Based on what I heard from Dr. Price in 2012, peer pressure to participate seemed important,” Pivonka said. “So I wonder if getting some of the student athletes or other key student influencers to eat more would be a less expensive way of getting other kids to eat more fruits and vegetables. Perhaps the money would be better spent on nutrition education, which is also greatly lacking in schools.”
After rewards ended, so quickly did the increased consumption by the Utah students. It returned to prior levels — but not lower.
Whether a longer term study would produce similar results remains unclear.