American kids are often conditioned to think they don't like fruit and vegetables, so they eat far less of these nutritional power foods than their growing bodies need. Of course, the research team behind the U.S. Food Dudes program at Utah State University prefers the term "incentives," but whatever you want to call it, one thing is clear - kids in the program are eating more fruit and vegetables.
"Kids already know that fruit and vegetables are good, but it's not that simple," says Greg Madden, associate professor at USU's Department of Psychology. "They are going to make impulsive decisions and won't think about the long-term consequences of eating Cheetos every day."
The program, first developed by psychologists in Wales and now in place at six schools in Cache Valley, banks on a three-step system to encourage children to eat more fruit and vegetables at both school and home. Last year, Madden and the research team at USU were the first to adopt Food Dudes in the United States, kicking it off at the on-campus Edith Bowen Elementary School, which doubles as a laboratory for such programs. By the end of the four-mount program, kids were eating 40 percent more fruits and vegetables.
"It was still about half of what's needed," says Madden, who worked alongside nutrition professor Heidi Wengreen and dietician Sheryl Aguilar. "But it does increase the probability that they'll experiment with new foods."
Step one of the program banks on kids' love of superheroes with a video featuring the Food Dudes, who get their powers from - you guessed it - fruit and veggies, which General Junk and his bad-food minions try to steal. Researchers will also document how many fruits and vegetables each child is consuming.
During step two, Madden says, kids are given small tasting portions of several fruits and vegetables and asked to simply taste and swallow each option. That's when the rewards - step three - kick in.
"If they ate their fruit, they get a little red cherry stamp, and if they ate their vegetable, they get a carrot stamp," he explains. "If they ate both, they get a small prize, like a pencil case or stickers."
Over the course of the program, the rewards become less frequent and are eventually phased out, as kids start to actually enjoy eating certain fruits and vegetables.
And that, he says, is a reward in itself.
"Our best approach to dealing with obesity is to keep kids from becoming obese in the first place," says Madden, who would like to expand the program across the state. "The eating habits kids create when they are young last for a lifetime."