Cash or Credit? The Psychoeconomics of Childhood Obesity

by Sandy Todd Webster on Mar 19, 2014

Food for Thought

It seems that debit card purchases promote the same type of frivolity in children as in adults, but when cards are swiped to pay for school lunches, the impact goes deeper than just free spending. Kids’ food choices also become foolish, according to a study that appeared in the January issue of Obesity (2014; 22 [1], 24–26).

Cornell behavioral economists David Just, PhD, and Brian Wansink, PhD, studied more than 2,300 students in grades 1–12 at 287 schools across the country and discovered a surprising trend among kids who used a debit card instead of cash to buy their lunches. The debit card sample routinely made less healthful food selections than their cash-wielding counterparts.

“Across 1,036 students, the average purchase incidence for healthy food items was greater for schools with debit/cash systems versus debit-only (42% vs. 31%,),” the study authors said. “Specifically, debit/cash schools—as compared to debit-only schools—purchased more fresh fruits (47% vs. 31%); fresh vegetables (31% vs. 11%); all fruits (62% vs. 51%); and all vegetables (53% vs. 35%). Furthermore, students from debit/cash schools consumed marginally fewer total calories (752 vs. 721) than those from debit-only schools. These results are independent of gender, age, BMI, height, race, and income.”

Importantly, said Just and Wansink, these results suggest that payment systems may be a potentially overlooked means of guiding food selection 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,” concluded the researchers. “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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About the Author

Sandy Todd Webster

Sandy Todd Webster IDEA Author/Presenter

Sandy Todd Webster is Editor in Chief of IDEA's publications, including the award-winning IDEA FITNESS JOURNAL and IDEA FOOD & NUTRITION TIPS, the industry's leading resources for fitness, wellness and nutrition professionals worldwide. Sandy joined IDEA in 2001 as executive editor of IDEA PERSONAL TRAINER and IDEA FITNESS MANAGER magazines and was promoted to lead the editorial team in 2003. More than 20 years in magazine publishing, marketing communications and creative services have shaped her straightforward approach to multi-channel communication. Early experience in Los Angeles as a sports writer/reporter, and then enriching years as a managing editor in allied health care publishing have pulled her across a spectrum of stimulating subject matter. Fitness, health and nutrition reside at the perfect center of this content continuum, she feels. A Chicago native, Sandy grew up fully engaged in various competitive sports. Her drive and dedication as an athlete translate to a disciplined work ethic and unwavering approach to challenge in her career. Shortly after graduating journalism school from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, she was recruited to L.A. for her first post in magazine publishing. After two decades of working on magazines--and now in the throes of applying the unbelieveable multi-media content delivery options available in the magazine 2.0 world--she is still "completely in love" with the creative process it takes to deliver meaningful, inspirational content to end users. She is an accomplished home cook and gardner who would love to combine those skills and passions with her health and fitness background to continue educating readers about a well-balanced, healthy lifestyle.