ITHACA, N.Y. – Parents receiving academic report cards throughout the school year is commonplace, but a new Cornell University study shows that for healthier nutrition, parents should opt to receive a nutrition report card, too.
“This pilot study underscores that a nutrition report card is feasible and efficient… Although the results are preliminary, they suggest that [nutrition report cards] may be helpful in nudging children toward more healthy, less expensive options … at little cost to the school district,” according to Cornell behavioral economists Brian Wansink and David Just.
Many school districts utilize a payment system where students use a specialized debit-card to pay for the meal after specific food items are keyed into a smart cash register, allowing for items purchased and name of the student to be easily tracked. For example, if a student buys hot lunch and an ice cream sandwich, the cash register records the purchases. In the pilot study, parents who previously signed up to receive an electronic nutrition report card would then receive a report detailing what their child eats periodically.
The researchers found that after receiving nutrition report cards, some parents adjusted family dinner meals to include more nutritious food, and some parents used the opportunity to discuss the importance of health and nutrition with their kids. Other parents learned why the child’s cafeteria money account was depleted so rapidly.
Students whose parents received the nutrition report cards selected fruits and vegetables more frequently, and they selected flavored milk less frequently than the control group.
After the research, in open-ended responses, parents expressed appreciation for knowing what their children ate. One parent responded: “I like seeing the snacks they purchased. It made me understand why my one son was always out of money on his account.”
Nutrition report cards have the feature of engaging parents in their child’s decision-making process. This could be especially beneficial to younger children, who are learning to make independent food decisions, say the researchers.
The study, “Nutrition Report Cards: An Opportunity to Improve School Lunch Selection,” was published in PLOS ONE. Richard W. Patterson, Cornell doctoral candidate in policy analysis and management, and Laura E. Smith, Cornell doctoral candidate in nutritional sciences, were co-authors with Wansink and Just. The research was funded through an USDA/Economic Research Service grant.
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