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Debit card payment systems in school lunchrooms make the payment process quick and provide anonymity for those enrolled in the free and reduced meal program. However, debit card usage among adults has been shown to increase frivolous spending and researchers hypothesize that debit card purchases may increase unhealthy a-la-carte food sales among school children. Parents can pre-pay weeks or months in advance and therefore have little knowledge of what and how much their children are eating. This gap may cause students to spend more freely than if parents allot a certain cash amount for each day’s meal. This is of particular concern for overweight children and for those with poor health and nutrition. We hypothesized that the lack of monitoring that occurs at schools with debit-only payment systems will lead to a greater per capita percentage of unhealthy foods sold, when compared with schools with both debit and cash systems.
To test our hypothesis, we looked at the School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study III data collected from 285 public schools nationwide representing 2,314 students in 1st to 12th grade. The data were collected though student interviews that were conducted by trained USDA commissioned interviewers. The questions included height, weight and 24-h dietary recalls to determine what healthy versus relatively unhealthy foods students selected. Each student was interviewed twice. 725 of the participating students attended debit-only cafeterias, 311 cash or debit cafeterias, and 1257 cash-only cafeterias. The dietary recall data was used to determine what foods students had consumed during lunch in their school cafeteria. Comparable values were produced using frequency percentage calculations and analysis was conducted using STATA statistical software.
Healthy food items included fruit and vegetables and less healthy food items included candy, dessert, cheeseburgers and french-fries. Healthy foods were purchased 42% more often in the schools with cash and debit capability versus schools with debit-only (31%.) There was also a 16% higher purchase incidence of fresh fruit (16%), of fresh vegetables (20%), of all fruit (11%), and of all vegetables (18%) among students in schools with both cash and debit systems. Additionally, we found that students from debit/cash schools consumed an average of 31 fewer calories per meal. In schools with debit-only payment, purchase incidence of less healthy foods was greater (60%) versus debit/cash schools (46%.) In particular, students purchased more candy and fries in debit only schools. Students at debit/cash schools purchased 63 fewer calories of less healthy foods and 22 more calories of healthy foods during lunch.
Based on these findings, researchers recommend that schools have both debit and cash purchase capabilities in order to nudge students towards selecting healthier foods. Charging cash for less healthy items may cause students to think twice before making their selection.
Just, David and Brian Wansink (2014). School Lunch Debit Card Payment Systems are Associated with Lower Nutrition and Higher Calories. Obesity, 22(1), 24-26. doi: 10.1002/oby.20591