Paying cash for lunch may save kids calories
As adults, we know that if we have cash in our wallets, we’re more likely to spend our money judiciously. A credit card, on the other hand, allows us a certain amount of, well, freedom. Apparently, the same mindset applies to school-age children who use refillable debit card systems to pay for their school lunches. And the larger cost may be to their health, according to new research in the journal Obesity.
According to the study published in late September, school cafeterias that accept only electronic payments may be unintentionally promoting less healthy food choices and adding empty calories to students’ diets.
“There may be a reason for concern about the popularity of cashless systems,” said co-author David Just in a statement. “Debit cards have been shown to induce more frivolous purchases or greater overall spending.”
Co-authors of the study, Just and Brian Wansink, surveyed 2,314 U.S. public school students to compare purchases at cafeterias that use debit-only systems with those that accept debit or cash.
Just and Wansink found that students in first through 12th grades at debit/cash cafeterias consumed about 721 calories while the debit-only school students consumed 752 calories.
For less healthy food options such as candy, dessert, cheeseburgers and fries, students at debit-only schools consumed 441 calories during lunch while their debit/cash school counterparts consumed 378 calories.
The research points out that an ice cream sandwich here and a bag of potato chips there can add up—and students can draw down debit accounts quickly. And because parents pay for several weeks’ worth of lunches in advance, they have little control over individual transactions and have difficulty determining how long the money should last if spent wisely.
“This may lead children to generally greater spending on lunch,” said Wansink, co-director with Just of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs in Ithaca, N.Y.
The researchers add that a few schools have figured out ways to combat the problem such as debit systems that allow parents to limit daily spending.
If using cash vs. debit cards can encourage students to make slightly healthier choices, Just and Wansink suggest a “cash-for-cookies policy that would encourage students to think twice before making their selection.”
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