Winter 2018

Spending Smarter

Teaching kids to make better snack choices with their own pocket money.

By Helene Ragovin

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Illustration: Juliette Borda

Nutrition experts spend a lot of time examining what children eat at home, at school and even at restaurants. But little is known about how they make choices when they’re buying food for themselves—say, spending their pocket money at the convenience store. All those crumpled dollar bills add up: American kids spend more than $200 billion of their own money a year on food, toys, and other items, with kids under 12 spending most of it on junk food, said Friedman School economist Sean Cash.

These junk-food dollars translate into hundreds of empty calories a day, said Cash, an associate professor who has researched the buying habits of schoolchildren at corner stores. Cash and his colleagues recorded children regularly purchasing an average of 480 daily calories worth of soda, chips, and candy bars—“more than a quarter of the calories they’re meant to eat in a day,” he said. Cash wondered how those early experiences shape future habits as adults.

In a USDA-funded intervention project known as CHOMPS—Coupons for Healthier Options for Minors Purchasing Snacks—Cash’s team looked at what happened when they offered kids-only coupons at stores within walking distance of K-8 schools in Somerville, Massachusetts, and other nearby Boston suburbs. The coupons offered discounts on snacks lower in fat, salt, sugar, and calories than the ones kids usually picked, or on produce if it was available. “We weren’t out to convince the storekeepers they needed to carry hundreds of fruits and vegetables if they weren’t already doing so,” Cash said. “This was more pragmatic—sometimes getting the kids to buy baked potato chips instead of fried, or a granola bar instead of a candy bar.” Sometimes the coupons were simply left for the children to discover; other times, they were more actively promoted—even distributed by a research assistant in a monkey suit.

Did it work? “The kids did use the coupons, though not as much as we would have liked,” Cash said. And the researchers discovered that even if the kids weren’t buying the promoted items, they were more likely to choose a healthier food on days the coupons were offered. “When we didn’t offer the coupons, they almost never bought fruit, vegetables, nuts, or seeds,” Cash said. “When we offered the coupons, the sales of fruits and vegetables went up tenfold, from a fraction of a percent, to more than 3 percent.” That wasn’t a revolutionary change, but it was an important step in the right direction. On CHOMPS days, the kids’ purchases were overall lower in total fat and calories, and higher in fiber and vitamins A and C.

Advertisers spend about $1.7 billion a year marketing food to kids, and one of their goals is hooking lifelong customers. Cash hopes a project like CHOMPS can motivate kids to think about their behavior as consumers—and teach them to make good food choices when adults aren’t around. “If you sneak some cauliflower into mashed potatoes in the school cafeteria, you’re not giving the power to make decisions to the children,” Cash said. “Where does that leave them when they’re on their own?”

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