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Can Children Be Manipulated into Eating Their Veggies?

All flesh used to be grass, but nowadays quite a lot of it is fast food. Although the rate of obesity among American children did not increase between the years 2007-8 and 2009-10, according to a survey recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, it is still alarmingly high at one in six. American children do not any more go to school hungry: they go to school fat.

Can anything be done about it and, if so, whose responsibility is it to do it? The U.S. government believes that children do not eat enough vegetables; it might very well be right, of course, but I suspect that the founding fathers might have been surprised that it had any opinions on the subject.

Researchers in Minnesota, also reporting in JAMA, attempted to encourage (or inveigle) children from kindergarten to fifth grade into eating more vegetables at lunch. As far as I can see, the ethics of the attempt did not bother them: the desirable end justified the mildly manipulative means.

They took the lunch trays of the children, predominantly from disadvantaged homes, and put photographs of carrots and green beans in the bottom of two of the compartments. The theory, or hope, of the researchers was that the children would conclude either that other children ate vegetables, or that that were expected to do so, or both.

The researchers measured how many carrots and beans the children took and ate, comparing days when the photographs appeared in their lunch trays with those on which they did not. The children were free to choose, and the researchers were careful not to confuse choice with consumption. They assiduously measured how much vegetable matter the children actually ate, going as far as to weigh the beans and carrots to be found on the floor or left on the trays.