Junk Food School Rewards: Restaurants Get In On The Action

by Bettina Elias Siegel on November 14, 2012

Chris Liebig of A Blog About School (and a very popular past TLT guest blogger) shared with me a post he wrote yesterday in which he describes how his school is handing out Dairy Queen coupons for perfect attendance.  Chris points out how this scheme is misguided in about ten different ways – his post is definitely worth a read.

Meanwhile, my son informs me that in our elementary school, classes with the highest homework compliance will get coupons for ice cream shakes at a local burger joint.  I may have moaned audibly when he told me this in the car.

On the one hand, you could argue that a restaurant voucher is better than a teacher simply handing out junk food rewards since, with a voucher, some intervening parental oversight is required.  We’ve certainly thrown out our share of coupons for free Pizza Hut pizzas, awarded as part of a reading program in which my school participates.  That’s a degree of control which was stripped from me when, as but one example of in-class junk rewards, my daughter was handed multiple cans of Coke and full-sized bags of gummi bears by a teacher for good performance.

But why do Dairy Queen and Pizza Hut and countless other restaurant chains get into the “school reward” business in the first place?  To imprint their brands upon young minds as early as possible, in hopes of forming a lifelong loyalty.  It’s a strategy that’s proven to work since young kids lack the critical faculties to view advertising with the objectivity of adults.  But why do parents need to stand for it?

And then there’s the larger philosophical question, raised in my “Food in the Classroom Manifesto,” of why we now reward kids for behaviors — like attendance and homework completion — which in the past were simply expected of all students.  And even when kids do something great, like getting a good grade, aren’t we devaluing the accomplishment when we commodify it?  When I was a kid, my own sense of pride and my parents’ praise was enough incentive for me to perform well, but now, apparently, you can cash in a report card full of  A’s for Krispy Kreme donuts (limit 6 per report card); eight Chick-Fil-A nuggets; a slice of Sbarro pepperoni pizza and a soda; a McDonald’s Happy Meal; and many more.

Totally apart from the healthfulness (or lack thereof) of these junk food restaurant rewards, the practice of doling out treats for a child’s every positive move strikes me as deeply dispiriting and ultimately counterproductive.  As Chris Liebig notes with respect to the Dairy Queen coupons in his school:

As is so often the case with the district’s use of material rewards, the program sends a negative, materialistic, anti-educational message: that school is so aversive that you need to be bribed to attend, and that ice cream is what every normal person really wants.

Exactly right.


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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris Liebig November 15, 2012 at 1:01 am

Thanks for linking to my post! This issue always riles me up, because I am at such a loss to understand how anyone could think these programs are a good idea. It sometimes seems that there are no values that schools won’t sacrifice in the pursuit of short-term compliance with behavioral rules.

By the way, it may be true that young kids lack the critical faculties to view advertising with the objectivity of adults, but I sometimes wonder whether school is at least partly responsible for that. It seems like there are fair number of adults in the school system who also lack the critical faculties to view advertising with the objectivity of adults . . .


Bettina Elias Siegel November 15, 2012 at 9:36 am

Chris: It goes beyond the purview of my kid/food blog to get into this larger topic, but I couldn’t agree more with your statement that: “It sometimes seems that there are no values that schools won’t sacrifice in the pursuit of short-term compliance with behavioral rules.” Just one more example is the withholding of recess as a punishment. This practice often violates district policy and is proven to be counterproductive — fidgety kids need time to blow of steam, and they learn better if they can get some exercise and down time — but schools do it nonetheless. Sigh.


Chris Liebig November 15, 2012 at 1:34 pm

I happened to post about that very issue — withholding recess as a punishment — just a few weeks ago. Just like with the issue of junk food rewards, our district has an explicit policy on the issue that is routinely ignored.


EdT. November 20, 2012 at 1:46 pm

Teachers have been withholding recess as a punishment for decades. It was a common practice when I was in elementary school (in the early 1960s). By middle school, they changed to using exercise – until the kids passed out, or got physically ill in other ways – as punishment. Oftentimes, the entire class got to “participate”. (And folks wonder why we sometimes view exercise as something extremely evil?)



Bettina Elias Siegel November 20, 2012 at 3:03 pm

I agree: it sends a terrible message when exercise is used as a punishment!


RedinNC November 15, 2012 at 8:23 am

Yes yes yes. I could not agree with you more. I hate these junk food rewards. In the last month my son has gotten a Pizza Hut coupon for meeting his reading goal, a Texas Roadhouse coupon for perfect attendance, and an ice-cream party for good behavior in the class. Probably there was more stuff but I have trouble keeping score. I do agree that it is MUCH better to receive a coupon than actually have the teachers hand the kids food. But boy does it bother me when he comes home with a sticker on his shirt saying “It’s Chick-fil-A spirit night” and begging to go. I mean, kudos to Chick-fil-A for giving money to the schools but gack. What does it say about our priorities as a society when our junk-food peddlers are throwing crumbs of profit to our public schools?


Bettina Elias Siegel November 15, 2012 at 9:30 am

You’ve summed up my views exactly.


Casey November 15, 2012 at 10:34 am

I’m glad more people are questioning this practice. It’s also a bad idea because the major medical organizations recommend not using food as a reward as part of obesity prevention: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/childhood-obesity/DS00698/DSECTION=prevention
I shared my story about Chick-fil-A marketing to kids in school with CSPI: http://cspinet.org/new/pdf/parent_stories.pdf


Bettina Elias Siegel November 16, 2012 at 7:27 am

Casey: For weeks now I’ve been trying to track down a cite about medical organizations coming out against food as reward. It’s surprisingly hard to find, so thank you for that Mayo Clinic link!


Casey November 16, 2012 at 12:05 pm

Here’s more:
The Mayo Clinic says, As a general rule, don’t use food as a reward or punishment. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/childhood-obesity/DS00698/DSECTION=prevention
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says do not use food as a reward http://www.aacap.org/cs/root/facts_for_families/obesity_in_children_and_teens
The American Academy of Family Physicians says Food should not be used for non-nutritive purposes such as comfort or reward. Do not provide food for comfort or as a reward.
The American Dietetic Association says Food should not be used as a reward or punishment. http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&frm=1&source=web&cd=4&ved=0CDcQFjAD&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.eatright.org%2FWorkArea%2Flinkit.aspx%3FLinkIdentifier%3Did%26ItemID%3D6442469837%26libID%3D6442469818&ei=-mF0UI6hG8OLrAGQhID4Cg&usg=AFQjCNGW_ShfImPlOmkqQJSDTjmGWtUMwA&sig2=KxMOXmoaCoa1A1b86INTsw
The American Academy of Pediatrics says Food should be used as nourishment, not as a reward or punishment. In the long run, food rewards or bribes usually create more problems than they solve. Food should be used as nourishment, not as a reward or punishment. In the long run, food rewards or bribes usually create more problems than they solve.


Bettina Elias Siegel November 16, 2012 at 3:26 pm

You are a trove of information! Thank you so much!


bw1 November 17, 2012 at 12:45 am

The pronouncements of such organizations do not represent the professional judgment of their members, or even the results of research by their members. These statements and recommendations are written by committees of delegates, and are as much influenced by their economic and political interests and agendas as those of any regulatory agency captured by lobbyists.
A far more compelling case is in Bettina’s simple statement that it’s a morally corrupt lesson to give kids rewards for what is really baseline fulfillment of their end of the social contract.


bw1 November 17, 2012 at 12:41 am

“But why do Dairy Queen and Pizza Hut and countless other restaurant chains get into the “school reward” business in the first place? To imprint their brands upon young minds as early as possible, in hopes of forming a lifelong loyalty.”

Not really. It’s far simpler and less nefarious than that. Most parents, given such a coupon, will take the whole family there for dinner, with the free meal for the coupon-earning kid representing a discount. It’s the same reason ANY retail vendor offers ANY coupon or discount, and why places like Target offer prescriptions so cheap – to get customers in the door, and make something off the ancillary purchases.


Coolernearlake November 19, 2012 at 6:19 pm

I was fine with this until Bettina said, “when I was a kid.” Sorry, but this is not something new! I remember back when I was in 9th and 10th grade…in the dim, dark and very long ago 1970s…and you could take your report card to McDonald’s and get a coupon for a burger for every A. I was a straight A student, too, so this was a big deal for me.


Bettina Elias Siegel November 19, 2012 at 10:05 pm

Well, I was even younger in the dim, dark 70s! :-) But it may well be that this was going on then, too, and I just didn’t know about it.


bw1 November 20, 2012 at 1:49 am

Back then it was mostly limited to the worst inner city school districts where the expectation of extraordinary rewards for meeting baseline criteria was already an entrenched part of the local culture.


coolernearlake November 20, 2012 at 5:03 pm

No, sorry bw1, this was offered to all students in the entire metro area, public, private and parochial. Come on, would McDonald’s have really said you can have a burger but only if you go to a lousy school?


bw1 November 22, 2012 at 3:10 am

Not in my metropolitan area. It was only at participating outlets, all of which were in the inner city. Some of my friends took their report cards to our suburban McDonald’s, and were turned away.


Jen November 19, 2013 at 11:00 pm

When I was a kid (80s), I got Pizza Hut coupons for meeting my reading goals. In high school, my mom would take me to a fantastic local restaurant (her money) if I got straight A’s each term. I enjoyed these rewards and worked hard to get them. I did feel pride and a sense of accomplishment for receiving good grades, but let’s face it: I would not have worked quite so hard if I did not get a great reward. I still do not work for free; I expect payment at the end of my contract time for the work that I do. As a mom, when my kids got Pizza Hut coupons, I would say, “Congrats” and take them 1 time in 3 because I didn’t make it in before the expiration date. Not every certificate is redeemed. Just today, one of my kids found a reward certificate that expired in 2008. I doubt I am the only one who “loses” these things.
As a teacher, I tried to use a “no rewards, just pride in accomplishment” system for a full year with first graders. I had the lowest ever rate of return on take-home library books. My kids got a rather low grade on the end-of-year reading fluency assessment. The previous year, I gave one small candy (skittle, jelly bean, etc.) to kids who had brought their book back daily. I was feeling extremely guilty, but that year my kids scored higher than ever on their reading fluency assessment, because they had practiced. This year, I am trying a happy medium. Sometimes I give a piece of candy, other times it is praise, or a sticker on a chart; often I give nothing but the expectation for the book to be at school. I still have a very high return rate.
My point? While internal motivation works with some kids, many kids do not have the reasoning or the experience to truly be motivated internally; it is something that needs to be built. After being successful at completing goals for an extended time period, which may be facilitated by receiving rewards, many kids are ready to make the switch from external to internal rewards. I don’t doubt that I will see many negative comments because I dared to speak up and say, “External rewards (including food) are NOT terrible, especially if they are used judiciously.”


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