Lunch Money Lessons: Paying Cash Leads to Healthier Choices in School Lunchrooms

Gone are the days of lost or forgotten lunch money! Over 60% of schools currently use electronic debit systems where students can simply enter their account number at checkout and pay for their lunch with no cash needed. Accounts can be filled up by parents to cover weeks or months of school meals. So what’s the downside? A new study from Cornell Food and Brand Lab shows that students select healthier foods in schools with a cash payment option.  

The study found that in schools that only use a debit system:

  • Fruit sales were 13% lower
  • Vegetable sales were about 8% lower

While money in a debit account can only be used for food items in schools, students are often given freedom to purchase a la carte items which are foods that are not included in the price of the meal. Students who select a la carte snack foods rather than the components of a balanced meal may not get the proper nutrition needed to fuel them for the rest of the school day. Alternately, students can purchase a meal and additional snack foods adding unnecessary calories to their diet.  The study showed that students who paid only with the debit systems purchased meals that contained 63 more calories than those who used cash for some portion or all of their meal.

How can your school ensure that students aren’t lead to unhealthy card-related behavior? How can the cafeteria encourage healthier choices without negatively impacting revenue? Charge healthy meals that meet the USDA meal regulations to debit accounts but require cash for any a la carte items. Students are more likely to opt for a full balanced meal if it is more convenient than other less healthy options. Another option is adopting a debit system that allows parents to set daily limits or restrict charging certain food items to the account.  These payment options may also increase the sales of reimbursable meals!


Katherine Baildon, Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs


Just, D.R., & Wansink, B. (2013). “School Lunch Debit Card Payment Systems are Associated with Lower Nutrition and Higher Calories.” Obesity. September 2013.