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Cash or Card? The Answer May Affect Students' Waistlines

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Students who use debit cards to pay for their school lunches are more likely to purchase unhealthy optional items than their cash-only peers, a new study concludes.

Schools are increasingly using cash-free systems to charge students for lunch, researchers said, noting that a 2007 survey found 80 percent of schools planned to use them by 2012. The advantage is anonymity for students who purchase free and reduced-priced lunches, which often leads to greater enrollment in those programs. But the debit-payment sword has two sides, the study says:

"For those not receiving the free lunch, parents may give their child just enough cash each school day to purchase the standard lunch. Thus, in order to buy a la carte items, which are often less healthy options, a child must forego purchasing the standard lunch. Spending is limited to the amount of money physically present in hand. Alternatively, with debit accounts, a child is typically endowed with a large amount of money that can be drawn down daily. Parents pay for several weeks' or months' worth of lunches in advance, resulting in little to no control over individual transactions. With such large sums of money, it may be difficult for parents to gauge how long the money should last if spent wisely. This may lead children to generally greater spending on lunch. Aside from parental admonishment, there are practically no limits on a child's choices. This is a particular concern for children whose choices may contribute to poor health outcomes, most notably, overweight and obesity."

The researchers made their conclusions after surveying the purchasing habits of 2,314 public school students.

This principle is clearly at play in adult behavior.

I have a buddy who monitors her frivolous spending by carrying her "fun money" in categorized envelopes of cash. It makes her more aware that she's spending a finite resource and less likely to impulsively blow her last $30 on a sale-priced shirt she will likely never wear, she says.

Like my friend's envelope system, researchers recommend systems that allow parents to set daily purchasing limits for their kids. They also suggest districts explore a "cash for cookies" policy, under which cafeterias would require cash for a la carte purchases.

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