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Bribing youngsters to better eating habits

Offering incentives boosts young students’ fruit and veggie consumption, study shows

Posted: January 14, 2014 5:42 p.m.
Updated: January 14, 2014 5:42 p.m.

SANTA CLARITA - Researchers at two universities have recently found a way to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables: pay them to do it.

According to the study, the United States spends more than $4.5 million each day on fresh fruits and vegetables to serve in public schools. Estimates show at least $3.5 million of that is tossed in the garbage by students.

The effort to get school-age children to choose healthy food over junk has been a long-fought battle. In a recent survey, 10/10 young children chose a Twinkie over an apple 100 percent of the time.

Researchers from Brigham Young University and Cornell University worked together to find ways to encourage children to make the choice to eat healthfully. Their hypothesis: offer a financial incentive for grabbing a banana over a bag of chips.

BYU economics professor Joe Price oversaw much of the study. He said parents often avoid systems involving bribery because they worry it sends the wrong message to children.

“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.”

One local psychologist, however, sees the issue differently.

“Bribing anyone to do anything dis-empowers the person who is being bribed,” said Dilyse Diaz, a licensed psychotherapist who maintains a private practice in Valencia.

“Instead of bribing, spend more time teaching children how certain foods impact their bodies. Inspire them from the inside out to want to live better.

“What a gift our schools and parents would grant our children if we just took the time to teach them,” Diza said.

Nikole Fuentes, program manager for the Santa Clarita Valley Child & Family Center’s early childhood services, suggested parents eating their own fruits and vegetables might be a better way to teach the lesson.

“Whether or not it is helpful psychologically to use money as a motivator is unknown,” Fuentes said.

“We encourage our families to model behavior and positively reinforce with words what they want their children to do more of. If it is eating more fruits and vegetables, we would encourage families and/or schools to have more of this in their home.”

She suggested rewarding youngsters with praise, not money, when they make positive food choices.

BYU’s Price and Cornell Professor David Just worked with 15 different schools to track students’ consumption of fruits and vegetables for a week. Some students were offered a nickel or a dime for choosing to eat an apple or orange; others were given raffle tickets for larger prizes.

Offering these small rewards upped the percentage of produce consumption by 80 percent and decreased the amount of produce wasted by 33 percent.

After the experiment ended, Price said produce intake decreased, but didn’t have a sudden drop-off. He plans to conducting similar studies in other schools, stretching them out for four or five weeks.

“I don’t think we should give incentives such a bad rap,” Price said. “They should be considered part of a set of tools we can use.”

The study is titled “Using incentives to Encourage Healthy Eating in Children.” A copy is available at

Deseret News Service contributed to this story.




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