Thursday, January 19, 2017

Healthy Habits: Discounts and Healthy Eating for Kids

  Parents can control what their children eat when kids are young, but what happens when they are old enough to spend their own money and make their own choices?
        “There is a lot of interest in child nutrition and what kids do with their money,” said Sean Cash of the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science. “A lot of what they buy is junk food and some studies show they do it every day.”
        But is there a way to convince them to choose healthier options? That is the focus of “Young Food Consumers: How do Children Respond to Point-of-Purchase Interventions?” As part of this study children were offered coupons for healthier foods; first in experiments and then in actual stores.
        Some of this work is part of an initiative called the CHOMPS Project (coupons for healthier options for minors purchasing snacks); a partnership between Tufts and the United States Department of Agriculture.
        “This isn’t to stop them from buying cookies and getting cucumbers instead,” Cash said. “We wanted to know if we can influence what kids are buying after they are already in the stores.”
I had a chance to interview Sean Cash to learn more.
What is the CHOMPS Project?
CHOMPS stands for Coupons for Healthier Options for Minors Purchasing Snacks, and it’s a USDA-funded project that put “kids-only” coupons in corner stores in the Boston area to see if we could encourage kids coming into the stores before and after school to make healthier choices when buying snack food. We switched up the coupons we offered - two per week on different food items - and played around with different options for advertising the coupons as well. 

Do kids respond to a financial incentive to buy healthier food? 

It’s kind of amazing that even though kids have quite a bit of money - estimates are in the billions of dollars spent directly by kids each year - we know fairly little about how they choose to spend it. One thing we do know, however, is that they buy a lot of food with their own money, and much of what they buy is junk food. In the CHOMPS project, we found that we could get kids to buy some healthier snacks by offering coupons, but that the power of habit was strong and most kids kept buying what they usually did. One interesting thing that we found is that when we offered to coupons, kids made healthier choices even if they did not use the coupons on offer that day. In other words, simply having the coupons in the store seemed to move at least some kids in a healthier direction even if they didn’t use the coupon.

In other studies we’ve conducted, where we’ve run experiments with children and asked them to make choices with different prices on offer, we found that kids do pay attention to price, and that they bought healthier snacks when the prices were relatively lower than for unhealthy snacks. I suspect there was less responsiveness in the stores because (a) kids enter the store with a preconceived notion of what they want to buy, (b) there’s more going on in the store than when we force the students to focus on just a few food options in an experiment, so they may less attention to price there, and (c) social pressures may be at play.

What are some ways to make healthier food options more appealing?
Other studies and projects have shown that you can help kids make healthier choices in school lunchrooms by changing the presentation, giving healthier foods more appealing names, rearranging the location of food serving areas, etc. People tend to ignore what kids do with their own money in stores, but there’s no reason to believe that some of these changes wouldn’t make a difference there as well. The problem is that store owners have different incentives at play, and are less likely to want to (for example) rearrange the candy aisle in a way that lowers sales there.

What impact could this have on school lunch programs?
We’ve made a lot of effort as a society to improve the quality and nutrition of school lunch meals, but one thing I worry about is that kids might eat somewhat healthier things at school and then go to a corner store or elsewhere and undermine those improvements by buying more junk food, precisely because they were making healthier options earlier! Researchers call this “compensatory behavior,” and it’s similar to when you or I treat ourselves to a nacho platter or a big piece of cake for desert as a “reward” for eating a salad for lunch or going for a jog. In order to improve overall dietary quality, we need to focus not just on controlled environments like school lunchrooms, but also think about other places where food is being consumed. I am fascinated by this question of what kids do with their own money in part because I think it’s an important part of the child diet puzzle. And also because I’m interested in knowing how kids are developing as consumers as they move through retail environments, are exposed to advertising, and develop independent tastes and are influenced by their peers.
ABOUT AAEA: Established in 1910, the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association (AAEA) is the leading professional association for agricultural and applied economists, with 2,500 members in more than 20 countries. Members of the AAEA work in academic or government institutions as well as in industry and not-for-profit organizations, and engage in a variety of research, teaching, and outreach activities in the areas of agriculture, the environment, food, health, and international development. The AAEA publishes two journals, the American Journal of Agricultural Economics and Applied Economic Perspectives & Policy, as well as the online magazine Choices. To learn more, visit

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