Should Schools Declare Defeat and Just Pay Students to Eat Their Vegetables?

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Dec. 18 2013 7:47 PM

If You Pay Kids to Eat Vegetables at School, Study Finds They'll Actually Do It

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These kids are only eating vegetables because Michelle Obama is watching.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Eating more fruits and vegetables is a good thing, especially for kids. But, getting kids to eat their vegetables is a hard to do, and has been since the invention of kids. Despite the challenge, that’s not to say (of late) the nation’s schools aren’t trying. The National School Lunch Program, for example, plowed $11 billion into giving school kids healthy lunch options last year. But, researchers have found despite the expanded menu in lunchrooms, the aversion to green colored foods persists. According to a new study by Brigham Young University and Cornell, that means an extra $5.4 million worth of fruits and vegetables are being heaped on students' plates in America’s lunchrooms each day and, despite having surely been told better, America’s students responded emphatically—throwing out nearly $4 million of the extra produce daily.* That’s a lot of composting.

Starving kids into submission doesn’t seem to be working nor does making them fill their plates with required eating. Even when forced to plop a serving of carrots or green beans on their plates researchers found students still chucked 70 percent of it. To try to address the farm-to-compost problem, BYU and Cornell came up with a (seemingly exasperated) alternative: just pay the kids to eat. And lo and behold, it works. “Strange as it sounds,” researchers found, “directly paying students to eat a fruit or vegetable is less expensive and gets better results.”

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Here’s what they found:

[Researchers] 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.

But what happens when the benevolent bribes stop? Exactly what you’d expect. “When the week of prizes ended, students went back to the same level of fruit and vegetable consumption as before – no lasting improvement, but no boomerang effect either.” The boomerang effect is when after the paydays stop, kids actually eat fewer healthy options than they did before. And, in the battle of Brussels sprouts, holding the line might just count as a win.

*Correction, Dec. 19, 2013: This post originally stated that $5.4 million worth of fruits and vegetables is being provided in lunchrooms and nearly $4 million of it is thrown out each year. In fact, those amounts are being produced and thrown out each day.

Elliot Hannon is a writer in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter.

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