Tom Karst, National Editor
Tom Karst, National Editor

If the scolding, the cajoling, the preaching, the teaching all fail, then is the answer is to pay kids to eat vegetables?

That, at least, is the conclusion of researchers who looked at the issue recently.

The research found some coverage in Medical Express with the headline “Study: Pay kids to eat fruits, veggies with school lunch.”

In its eye-popping lede, the story said the nation’s children throw out $3.8 million of the extra $5.4 million in fruits and vegetables mandated by updated federal school lunch standards.

The solution: an old-fashioned bribe.

The researchers, David Just of Cornell University and Joseph Price of Brigham Young University, said they were able to raise the percentage of kids eating fruits or vegetables at lunch by 27.3% (an 80% increase) by providing a small incentive.

The incentive also reduced the fruits and vegetables being thrown away by 43%.

Bottom line, the researchers suggest that schools requiring children to take fruits and vegetables with their lunch might consider adopting additional interventions (bribes) to make sure that the additional fruits and veggies served don’t end up in the trash can.

One published version of their work, called “Using incentives to encourage healthy eating” is available on the website of Brigham Young University and another, updated version is available from the journal Public Health Nutrition.

I’ll use my brother for a helpful analogy. (Sorry, Doug!) Doug bribed (incentivized) his sons to do 25 pushups a day with a certain cash reward at the end of a couple of months. A bonus was provided for daily pushups above 25.

It worked. His two boys have done the work and reaped the cash and awesome pecs to boot.

But can a “carrot” approach work in the school lunch room work to push kids to eat more fruits and vegetables?

Perhaps, if this research is correct. But it is a step too far to give kids money to eat their veggies.

Kids may put the quarters into the vending machine for a Butterfinger, after all. Instead, give the kids more recess, free books at the book fair, lunch with the principal, or some other recognition.

The Medical Express article pointed out the best argument against bribes related to parenting is given in Alfie Kohn’s 1999 book “Punished by Rewards.”

Kohn says in his book that promising goodies to kids for good behavior only produces temporary obedience.

In my view, schools must build a better “offer” for increased servings of fruits and vegetables to be successful. Give kids salad bars with a lot of options, with better quality fruits and vegetables.

Schools must also work to more completely educate kids on the value of fruits and vegetables in the diet before we bribe our way to five a day.

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