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Debit-Only School Lunches Tied to Unhealthy Food Choices

October 9, 2013

2 Min Read
Debit-Only School Lunches Tied to Unhealthy Food Choices

ITHACA, N.Y.School cafeterias that accept only electronic payments may be inadvertently promoting unhealthier food, decreasing fruit and vegetable consumption and increasing calories in students diets, according to a new study published in the journal Obesity.

Researchers with Cornell Universitys Food and Brand Lab examined the lunch purchases of 2,314 students in grades 1 through 12 to see how payment methods impacted food choice. In schools that allowed debit-only purchases, fruit purchases were 13% lower, while vegetable purchases were 20% lower. 

Students at debit-only schools were also more likely to purchase less healthy food options, such as candy, dessert and fried foods. Further, the lunches of students at debit-only schools contained 63 more calories from these less healthy foods and 32 fewer calories from healthier options.

The degree of parental guidance at lunchtime may be partly responsible for this phenomenon, researchers concluded. When parents give children a certain amount of cash for lunch each day, they can monitor kids daily spending more closely, resulting in better lunch choices. Debit systems, however, eliminate the restrictions of a daily cash allowance, providing kids the opportunity to spend their lunch money as they pleasewith unhealthy consequences.

The results have important implications for schools and child obesity. A small number of schools have introduced debit systems that allow parents to regulate daily spending, which can help combat the problem. Schools are taking other approaches as well, like reducing the amount of junk food available to students and increasing focus on nutritious foods.

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