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.
From the story:
With Cornell’s David Just, Price conducted a second study to measure the effect of small rewards in the lunchroom. The week-long experiments took on different twists in the 15 different schools – some could earn a nickel, others a quarter, and others a raffle ticket for a larger prize. But the results were generally the same. As the scholars report in The Journal of Human Resources, offering small rewards increased the fruit and vegetable consumption by 80 percent. And the amount of wasted food declined by 33 percent.
One published version of their work, called “Using incentives to encourage healthy eating” is available on the website of BYU and and another, updated version is available from the journal Public Health Nutrition.
David Just of Cornell University and Joseph Price and Brigham Young University summarized their findings in the BYU paper:
We use data from a field experiment at 15 elementary schools to examine effective incentives that increase the fraction of children eating a serving of fruit or vegetable as part of their school lunch. We were able to raise the fraction of children eating fruits or vegetables at lunch by 27.3 percentage points (an 80% increase) by providing a small incentive. The incentives also reduced the fraction of fruits and vegetables being thrown away by 43%. 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.
From the Public Health Nutrition abstract:
Objective: To examine whether requiring children to place fruits and vegetables on their lunch trays increases consumption of these items. Design Observational study that exploited naturally occurring variation between two school districts and a pre–post observational study at schools that changed their lunch policy mid-year.
Setting: Fifteen elementary schools from two school districts, one requiring students to place a fruit or vegetable on their tray and one that does not. In addition, three schools that implemented a default option part way through the school year.
Subjects: Students at eighteen elementary schools (41 374 child-day observations) across the two experiments.
Results: Requiring that fruits and vegetables be placed on each child’s tray increased the fraction of children who ate a serving of fruits or vegetables by 8 percentage points (P < 0·01) but led to an extra 0·7 servings being thrown away per lunch served (P < 0·01). The default option approach cost $US 1.72 to get one additional child to eat one serving of fruits and vegetables for 1 d. However, when default options were combined with a small rewards programme the efficacy of both interventions increased.
Conclusions” A default option, as a stand-alone programme, had only a limited impact on fruit and vegetable consumption but was much less cost-effective than other approaches. Schools requiring children to take fruits and vegetables with their lunch might consider adopting additional interventions to ensure that the additional items served do not end up being thrown away.
Related to this approach, I’ll use my brother for a helpful analogy. 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 reward.
But can a “carrot” 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 books 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 should consider bribing our way to 5 a day.