Chow Time

Ithaca High School students in line to get lunch. The Cornell study suggests that students who use debit cards eat more unhealthy meals.

Research conducted by Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab of the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management suggests some school cafeteria practices, such as utilizing debit cards in the lunch line, encourage unhealthy food choices. Brian Wansink, professor and director of the Food and Brand Lab, along with colleagues David Just and Andrew Hanks, monitored more than 2,300 students at 287 schools across the nation to discover some of the ways schools are contributing to the problem of childhood obesity and to test strategies to promote healthier lunchtime choices.

“One thing we found in the past is that when you give people a credit card, they not only spend more money, they also spend more indulgently,” said Wansink. “People are less likely to think twice about what they’re spending and what they’re spending it on. We thought this could have significant implications for students.”

With 80 percent of schools using debit cards and/or accounts in the lunch line, the implications were also widespread. According to Wansink’s research, the use of debit cards increased the amount of calories consumed—students in grades 1-12 at debit/cash cafeterias consume 721 calories for lunch compared to 752 at debit-only schools—but perhaps more importantly, students using debit cards choose unhealthy food more often than their cash-paying counterparts.

“Initially, we observed people in schools locally and kept track of what they bought when they used cash versus a debit card,” said Wansink. “We found if they used a debit card, they bought more cookies and less milk and fruit. So we said, ‘Let’s see if we can find this across the country.’ We took a large database of schools, and we saw the exact same difference nationwide as in local schools.”

The results were significant: kids choose three times as many vegetables when they are paying with cash. According to the researchers, one possible reason for the difference is parents are more involved in monitoring their child’s eating habits when they give them cash on a regular basis rather than refilling a debit card or account.

The average student consumes roughly 25 percent of their weekly calories at school. With over one third of school-aged children in the U.S. weighing in as overweight or obese, Wansink is on a mission to help schools make low-cost and no-cost changes in the cafeteria to promote healthier food choices.

“One of the things we find is that you’re 11 percent more likely to take the very first food you see rather than the third food you see,” said Wansink. “It doesn’t matter if it’s brussels sprouts or kale or a cookie.” The same goes for home, “Parents often put all of the food for a meal out at once. If you put a full bowl of pasta next to the kale, of course the kid will go for the pasta.”

By rearranging items in the lunch line, Wansink found that students were more likely to select healthy options that are more convenient than unhealthy options that are less convenient. According to Wansink, most people associate convenience with unhealthy foods that are frequently high in fat, sugar and salt. By making small adjustments in cafeteria layout, schools can help students associate healthy foods with convenience, an association that can affect student diets for the rest of their lives.

“We already have changes like these implemented in over 20,000 schools across the country as part of the smarter lunchroom movement,” said Wansink. “We’re showing schools low-cost and no cost-ways they can change they’re lunchrooms to encourage kids to eat apples or brussels sprouts rather than only lasagna and a cookie.”

One makeover tip: naming vegetables and displaying them with their name increases vegetable consumption. “If you give a healthy vegetable a name, instead of peas, it’s ‘power peas,’ or call carrots ‘x-ray vision carrots,’ you sell 27 percent more. If you move white milk to the front of the cooler, sale of white milk goes up 38 percent,” said Wansink. Moving and highlighting fruit increases fruit purchases by 102 percent.

When students had to ask for a cookie, they were less likely to choose cookies as part of their lunch. In a study published in 2012, Wansink and his colleagues found that altering lunchrooms to make healthy food choices more convenient reduced student consumption of less healthy foods by 28 percent.

Locally, Wansink and his colleagues have completed cafeteria makeovers in each of the Lansing schools and in Boynton Middle School. A video of the Boyton makeover can be found on YouTube (search ‘Boynton Middle School smarter lunchrooms’).

For more information on the smarter lunchroom movement and over 100 suggestions for making the cafeteria healthier, go to For more information on Wansink’s research, including his book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, a research-based resource for changing eating habits, go to §

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