Funding agency: This study was supported by United States Department of Agriculture through Grant #59-5000-0-0090 to establish Cornell University's Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs.
Brief Cutting Edge Report
School lunch debit card payment systems are associated with lower Nutrition and higher calories
Article first published online: 23 SEP 2013
© 2013 The Obesity Society
Volume 22, Issue 1, pages 24–26, January 2014
How to Cite
Just, D. R. and Wansink, B. (2014), School lunch debit card payment systems are associated with lower Nutrition and higher calories. Obesity, 22: 24–26. doi: 10.1002/oby.20591
Disclosure: The authors declared no conflicts of interest.
- Issue published online: 11 JAN 2014
- Article first published online: 23 SEP 2013
- Accepted manuscript online: 8 AUG 2013 08:53AM EST
- Manuscript Accepted: 23 JUL 2013
- Manuscript Received: 15 FEB 2013
Debit card payment systems are known to induce more frivolous purchases in adults, but their impact on children is unknown.
Design and Methods
Using a national survey of 2,314 public school students in the United States, food purchases in schools with debit-only systems to those in schools with both debit and cash options are compared.
Students in debit and cash schools purchase more fresh fruit and vegetables and fewer total calories.
Payment systems with cash options have a lower purchase incidence of less healthy foods and higher purchase incidence of more healthy foods.
Schools are increasingly using “cashless” debit systems for school lunch transactions. A 2007 national report estimated that 62% of schools used them and 80% planned to by 2012 . Such systems expedite the payment process and provide anonymity to students enrolled in free and reduced-priced lunches. Anonymity is associated with wider enrollment in free and reduced price lunch programs . Yet, there may be reason for concern about the popularity of cashless systems. Debit cards have been shown to induce more frivolous purchases or greater overall spending by adults [3-6] and college students . How do debit systems impact primary and secondary students' purchasing and eating behavior?
Without debit cards, students use cash to purchase lunch, in most cases provided by their parents. Those receiving the free lunch would only be allowed to purchase the standard lunch under either system. For those not receiving the free lunch, parents may give their child just enough cash each school day to purchase the standard lunch. Thus, in order to buy a la carte items, which are often less healthy options, a child must forego purchasing the standard lunch. Spending is limited to the amount of money physically present in hand. Alternatively, with debit accounts, a child is typically endowed with a large amount of money that can be drawn down daily. Parents pay for several weeks' or months' worth of lunches in advance, resulting in little to no control over individual transactions. With such large sums of money, it may be difficult for parents to gauge how long the money should last if spent wisely. This may lead children to generally greater spending on lunch. Aside from parental admonishment, there are practically no limits on a child's choices. This is a particular concern for children whose choices may contribute to poor health outcomes, most notably, overweight and obesity. This study examined whether schools with debit-only payment systems demonstrate greater purchases of less healthy items. We hypothesize that the lack of convenient monitoring from debit-only systems will result in less healthy purchasing.
We compare food purchases at schools with debit-only systems to those at schools with both debit and cash systems. The cash option allows parents to monitor their child's spending by rationing the amount of cash given to the child. The debit option does not allow parents to set limits on their child's spending. We examine purchases of foods considered healthy (e.g., fruits and vegetables) and unhealthy (e.g., candy, dessert, cheeseburgers, and fries) as well as measures of total calories consumed. It is hypothesized that debit-only schools will sell a greater per capita percentage of each unhealthy food item and a smaller per capita percentage of each healthy food item.The Cornell University Institutional Review Board exempted this study from review due to the exclusive use of unidentifiable secondary data.
We utilized the School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study-III (SNDA-III) data collected from a nationally representative sample of 285 public schools within 94 school districts (Table 1). This involved 2,314 students in grades 1-12. Student interviews included height and weight measurements and 24-h dietary recalls, which were conducted twice per student by trained USDA-commissioned interviewers. Of the students sampled, 725 attend schools that only allow debit purchases, 311 attend schools in which cash or debit purchases are allowed, and 1,257 attend schools in which only cash purchases are allowed. The database includes counts of items purchased but not the amount of money spent.
|Debit-only||Debit or cash||Chi-square or F-test (P-value)|
|BMI percentile||69.21 (27.62)||69.85 (27.39)||0.12 (0.73)|
|Age||12.64 (3.30)||12.80 (3.10)||0.51 (0.48)|
|Sex (Female)||0.50 (0.50)||0.51 (0.50)||0.07 (0.79)|
|Some high school||0.07 (0.26)||0.10 (0.30)||2.29 (0.13)|
|High school||0.27 (0.45)||0.26 (0.43)||0.34 (0.56)|
|Some college||0.26 (0.44)||0.21 (0.41)||1.56 (0.21)|
|Associates degree||0.10 (0.30)||0.07 (0.26)||1.37 (0.24)|
|College graduate||0.16 (0.37)||0.18 (0.38)||0.44 (0.51)|
|Graduate school||0.07 (0.26)||0.10 (0.30)||0.69 (0.41)|
|White||0.51 (0.50)||0.42 (0.49)||5.56a (0.02)|
|Black||0.15 (0.35)||0.25 (0.43)||7.39b (0.01)|
|Asian||0.08 (0.26)||0.08 (0.28)||0.358 (0.55)|
|Less than $30,000||0.27 (0.45)||0.36 (0.48)||4.73a (0.03)|
|$30,000 to $40,000||0.12 (0.33)||0.13 (0.34)||0.12 (0.73)|
|$40,000 to $60,000||0.22 (0.41)||0.14 (0.35)||4.14a (0.04)|
|$60,000 to $80,000||0.14 (0.35)||0.13 (0.33)||0.432 (0.51)|
|Greater than $80,000||0.25 (0.43)||0.25 (0.43)||0.01 (0.94)|
Using dietary recall data, variables were constructed to indicate whether a student had consumed various school foods. We examine only consumption of foods purchased during lunch in the school cafeteria. Frequency percentages were calculated to produce comparable values. Analyses were performed using STATA statistical software (version 8.1, STATA Corp., College Station, TX).
Across 1,036 students, Table 2 indicates that the average purchase incidence for healthy food items was greater for schools with debit/cash systems versus debit-only (42% vs. 31%, P < 0.001). Specifically, debit/cash schools—as compared to debit-only schools—purchased more fresh fruits (47% vs. 31%, P = 0.05), fresh vegetables (31% vs. 11%, P < 0.001), all fruits (62% vs. 51%, P = 0.24), and all vegetables (53% vs. 35%, P < 0.05). Furthermore, students from debit/cash schools consumed marginally fewer total calories (752 vs. 721, P = 0.04) than those from debit-only schools. These results are independent of gender, age, BMI, height, race, and income.
|Debit-only schools (n = 725)||Debit or cash schools (n = 311)||Chi-square or F-test (P-value)|
|Average purchase incidence for Healthier Food items||0.29||0.37||6.29a (0.01)|
|fresh fruit||0.32||0.45||6.38a (0.01)|
|Fresh vegetables||0.13||0.26||7.34b (0.01)|
|All fruit||0.58||0.71||6.05a (0.01)|
|All vegetables||0.37||0.57||9.68b (0.00)|
|Average purchase incidence for less healthy food items||0.54||0.41||13.19b (0.00)|
|French fries||0.28||0.35||2.23 (0.14)|
The purchase incidence for less healthy food items was greater for debit-only schools than for debit/cash schools (60% vs. 46%, P < 0.001) (see Table 1). Specifically, debit-only schools—compared to debit/cash schools—purchased more candy (35% vs. 24%, P = 0.08), and fries (as an a la carte item, 14% vs. 2%, P < 0.05). Table 3 indicates this translated into 63 fewer calories of the less healthy foods and 22 more calories of the healthier foods. In total, this represented a 12.4% fewer total calories selected during lunch.
|Debit-only schools (n = 725)||Debit or cash schools (n = 311)||F-test (P-value)|
|Total Calories||752||721||1.183a (0.04)|
|Total calories from all healthier foods||311||343||2.18 (0.14)|
|Total calories from fruit and vegetables||180||187||0.40 (0.52)|
|Fresh fruit||29||33||0.53 (0.47)|
|Fresh vegetables||6||5||0.00 (0.94)|
|All fruit||71||71||0.00 (1.00)|
|All vegetables||118||133||0.52 (0.47)|
|Total calories from all less healthy food items||441||378||4.03a (0.04)|
|Total calories from candy, dessert, cheeseburger and French fries||341||310||1.55 (0.21)|
|French fries||93||81||0.48 (0.49)|
School payment systems with cash options are associated with a lower purchase incidence of less healthy foods and higher purchase incidence of more healthy foods. It should be noted that some debit systems (e.g., NutriKids®) allow parents to set daily limits on spending or to restrict purchases of certain items. Such systems still provide schools with convenience while allowing parents to guide or control student lunch choices. Some schools within the SNDA data may employ such a system (potentially biasing our results downward). However, adoption is not widespread and it is unlikely that such a bias would have a measurable impact on results.
Importantly, these results point toward payment systems as being a potentially overlooked means to guide the selection of foods in schools. 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. More work, including experimental studies, is needed to examine the long-term impacts of various debit systems on student purchases and determine whether this association is causal in nature.
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