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News Release

Release No. 0514.10
Mary Reardon (202) 694-5136

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USDA Funds Research on Improving Child Nutrition Programs Through Behavioral Economics

WASHINGTON, Oct.12, 2010—Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced a series of research awards for behavioral economics research to improve nutrition and health outcomes associated with participation in USDA Child Nutrition Programs. The awards, totaling $2 million, establish a major new university-based research center, the Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, and fund 14 other research projects in Connecticut, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

"USDA's Food and Nutrition Service and Economic Research Service (ERS) have partnered to undertake a bold initiative to help schools and child care facilities promote healthy eating for our children by conducting innovative, promising, and practical research," said Vilsack. "Findings from this emerging field of research – behavioral economics – could lead to significant improvements in the diets of millions of children across America."

USDA's Child Nutrition Programs—including the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), School Breakfast Program (SBP), Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), Child and Adult Care Food Program, and Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program—touch the lives of millions of American children each day, including over 31 million children who eat school lunch and 11 million who eat school breakfast each school day. Because of their major impact on the diet and health of American children, the Child Nutrition Programs are a cornerstone of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation.

Across the nation, many schools are already taking steps to provide students with healthier meals and the nutrition knowledge to make healthier choices. However, it is well recognized that understanding the value of a healthy diet does not always translate into healthy choices. Research has shown that good intentions may not be enough: when choosing what or how much to eat, we may be unconsciously influenced by how offers are framed, by various incentives, and by such factors as visual cues.

The emerging field of behavioral economics draws on research from the fields of economics and social psychology to better understand behavior. This research can suggest practical, cost-effective ways that the school environment can better support healthful choices. For example, students may value the present over the future, making it hard to turn down today's tasty treat for the sake of long-term health. But research suggests we can support good intentions via the use of a pre-paid card that only allows students to purchase healthy options from the school cafeteria.

The first award establishes the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs, which will be headed by David Just and Brian Wansink. Center initiatives include:

  • leading and coordinating research on the application of behavioral economic theory to child nutrition program operations and activities;
  • expanding the network of social scientists who participate in such research; and
  • disseminating information obtained through its research program to a diverse stakeholder audience, including other researchers, policy and program officials, and the general public.

Three awards were also made for studies that will test the effectiveness of selected behavioral economics-based strategies in improving the food choices of children participating in USDA school meal programs.

Finally, USDA is funding 11 small-scale developmental grants to enhance research capacity in the application of behavioral economic strategies and interventions to child nutrition programs. Activities supported by these grants include;

  • fostering relationships between researchers and State or local school meal program implementing agencies;
  • testing concepts and methods in small-scale pilot projects;
  • developing and testing data collection methodologies; and
  • sponsoring workshops to improve understanding of the application of behavioral economics to child nutrition programs.

A complete listing of awards is on the web at

For further information contact Joanne Guthrie at (202) 694-5373; email:


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