Cornell nutrition report cards show students eat healthier when their parents are watching

Jan. 21, 2014, Poughkeepsie Journal

Researchers at Cornell University have found a low-cost way to convince students to pass up cookies and desserts at lunchtime and select fruits and veggies instead: Letting them know that their parents are watching.

A pilot study for nutrition report cards was conducted two years ago in Waverly Central School District. Parents who signed up to participate were emailed the weekly report cards that listed the foods their children were selecting à la carte during lunch. The students’ choices were tracked electronically through modified cash registers.

Despite being called report cards, the students were not awarded actual grades. But simply knowing their parents were monitoring their habits was enough to get students to pick fewer sweets and flavored milk and opt for vegetables and fruits more frequently. Cookie consumption alone dropped from 14.3 percent to 6.5 percent.

“It’s a really great example of how once you make a person even believe that someone else is paying attention, they snap up and stand a little straighter, they act a little better,” said Brian Wansink, the John S. Dyson professor of marketing and the director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab in the Department of Applied Economics and Management.

Wansink co-authored the study, “Nutrition Report Cards: An Opportunity to Improve School Lunch Selection,” with behavioral economist and associate professor David Just and doctoral candidates Richard Patterson and Laura Smith. The research was published in PLOS ONE in October.

“When it comes to school lunches, there is no accountability,” Wansink said. “Most kids buy what they want. It’s like having a free magic credit card that Mommy and Daddy wrote up every month.”

The student sample was admittedly small, with 35 students from the elementary, middle, and high schools tracked against a control group of 1,460 students. The study was conducted over five weeks in the spring of 2012.

After the study was completed, parents who were surveyed said even though they read the nutrition report cards each week, they didn’t devote significant time discussing the results with their children. Wansink said that demonstrates healthy eating habits do not always need to be repeatedly hammered into kids.

“It doesn’t have to be moralizing every Friday when the nutrition report card comes in,” he said. “It can simply be one or two mentions of things that can have a real lasting effect, much more than we think.”

Of course, there’s only so much a report card can show. The researchers couldn’t track if students visited a vending machine, shared a friend’s snack, or if the students even ate the veggies they picked up in the lunch line. And the report cards can’t always account for certain anomalies, which Wansink and his fellow researchers learned the hard way.

“One time we were tracking ice cream sales, and things were pretty good,” he said. “Then, all of a sudden in the last week, regardless of the presence of the nutritional report card, every kid was eating ice cream. It was like ‘Whoa, wait a minute, this wasn’t according to our theory.’”

When the researchers contacted the school district to inquire about the discrepancy, they learned the schools were giving away all of their ice cream so they wouldn’t have to refrigerate it over summer break.

“We were like, ‘Ah, foiled by reality.’”

One of the virtues of the nutrition report cards is that they can be done electronically, with little additional cost or time to districts. Wansink said the research team intentionally selected a rural district that had a high number of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches to preempt criticism that healthy food choices are easier in more affluent schools.

“The food service director and the superintendent and principal were so cooperative there,” he said. “They thought they were helping their kids, but in addition, I think they had no idea that they might be helping thousands, or even millions, of kids across the country by being involved with this study.”

Since the study was conducted two years ago, the Tioga County district has changed superintendents as well as its food services manager, and the current administration was not able to discuss the district’s participation in the study.

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