Study: Giving Rewards Boosts Fruit, Vegetable Consumption in Schools

U.S. researchers have found that paying schools kids small amounts of money or giving prizes increases the number who eat fruit and vegetables at lunch. The federal government introduced a new rule that requires national schools to serve an extra $5.4 million worth of fruits and vegetables each day at lunch, but most of it is thrown away — a situation begging for a solution.

The study, by Joe Price, an economics professor at Brigham Young University, and David Just of Cornell University, first examined whether kids are eating fruits and vegetables or not. The researchers observed three schools and found that students discard 70% of the extra fruits, according to a statement by Brigham Young University.

The study, published in the December issue of Public Health Nutrition, found that students throw out $3.8 million of that food in the garbage each day.

“We saw a minor increase in kids eating the items, but there are other ways to achieve the same goal that are much, much cheaper,” BYU economics professor Joe Price said.

The study suggests that directly paying students to eat a fruit or vegetable is less expensive and gets better results. The researchers conducted a study to measure the effect of small rewards in the lunchroom in a week-long experiment at 15 different schools. They offered some kids a nickel, others a quarter, and others a raffle ticket for a larger prize, and the results were generally the same.

According to the researchers, paying small rewards increased the fruit and vegetable consumption by 80%. In addition, the amount of wasted food decreased by 33%.

Which begs the question: Is benevolent bribery a better way? “Parents are often misguided about incentives,” Price said. “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, offering rewards to motivate kids may not be a long-term solution. Some fear that rewards and prizes will prevent children from developing their own motivation to eat things that are good for them. Additionally, it is possible that some children would eat less fruits and vegetables when the rewards disappeared — a danger known as a boomerang effect.

That’s why Price and Just measured fruit and vegetable consumption before and after the week-long experiments. 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.

Currently, the researchers are studying whether extending the tests over three to five weeks might yield a more lasting change. Price said “I don’t think we should give incentives such a bad rap.” The incentives and prizes “should be considered part of a set of tools we can use,” according to Price.

In the United States, many schools districts are taking steps to help the nation reduce the number of children who are overweight and obese, with The School Health Policies and Practices Study (SHPPS) finding that 44% of school districts have banned junk food from vending machines last year, up from 30% in 2006.