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School Cafeterias With Debit Systems Could Spur Kids To Consume More Calories

October 15, 2013
Amanda L. Chan

Many school cafeterias have turned to debit card systems, where parents can put money into an account linked with a card that students use to purchase food. But a new study from Cornell University shows that this cashless system could actually increase the amount of junk food students consume.

Researchers David Just and Brian Wansink, who are the co-directors of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs, analyzed food types and calories consumed among more than 2,300 students from first through 12th grade whose cafeterias had cash-only, cash-and-debit and debit-only systems.

Sure enough, students whose cafeterias had debit-only systems consumed slightly more calories than students whose cafeterias accepted cash -- 752 calories versus 721 calories.

Students with debit-only cafeterias also consumed more calories from unhealthy foods, like cheeseburgers or candy (441 calories) compared with cash-friendly cafeterias (378 calories). And students with debit-only cafeterias had lower purchases of fruits and vegetables -- 13 percent lower and 20 percent lower, respectively -- than students with cash-friendly cafeterias.

"Importantly, these results point toward payment systems as being a potentially overlooked means to guide the selection of foods in schools," researchers wrote in the Obesity journal study. "If the use of cash versus credit or debit cards can nudge a student into making slightly healthier choices, there may be a wide range of interventions -- such as a 'cash for cookies' policy -- that encourages students to think twice before making their selection."