Schools and colleges say "no thanks" to health incentives

Choice is a big reason colleges don't feel the need to incentivize.

Operators don’t agree when it comes to incentivizing healthful selections. Forty-four percent of B&I operators offer some kind of healthy-option incentive, which is significantly higher than all other segments and almost 20 percentage points higher than the next closest segment, hospitals with 25%. College operators (38%), however, don’t feel it’s necessary to incentivize healthful purchasing. The reason: choice.

“We want students to make their own choices,” says Scott VanDeraa, director of dining services for Creative Dining Services at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. “Quite frankly, you can incentivize all you like, but students are still going to go for french fries and chicken fingers. So even though we know they are not going to make the best choices all the time, we’re satisfied if we can encourage them to make the right choice some of the time.”

In lieu of any healthy-option incentives, VanDeraa’s department relies on education to help students make more healthful choices.

“We have a lot of good food so even if they choose something that wouldn’t be called ‘healthy,’ it isn’t necessarily bad for you if you eat it in moderation,” VanDeraa says. “We also label our wellness selections to help students identify healthy options.”

Like VanDeraa, Michele Wilbur, R.D., nutrition manager at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., has had similar experiences when offering incentives.

“What I’ve found in retail is if I’m being too obvious about promoting health and wellness, students stay away from it,” Wilbur says about why she doesn’t offer incentives for healthy dining in her retail outlets. “For example, we did a bunch of surveys that told us people wanted more salads. We already offered salads, which were served on flatbread. So we decided to make them into actual salads, and sales flopped.”

Forty percent of operators in K-12 schools reported that they have not even considered using incentives to prod students to make healthful selections. This fact isn’t too surprising considering the new school meal regulations that require all items to meet certain health metrics.

“We don’t do incentive programs because we have to serve healthy items already,” says Thomas Collins, food service director for Columbus (Miss.) Municipal School District. “This district has a very high free-and-reduced rate, so a lot of kids get free lunch. [Healthwise] we’ve been doing what is now required from the USDA for several years.”

High school students can select from eight entrées, two hot vegetables and one cold vegetable, plus two fruits.

Where offering incentives really makes a difference is in B&I locations. At Capital One, in Richmond, Va., Restaurant Associates offers a discount on its BWell menu items, says Chris Bak, who was executive chef for RA at the account. [Bak is now executive chef with SodexoMAGIC.] BWell menu items include sandwiches, soups and sides. For example, Bak says, if a regular 12-ounce soup costs $2.09, then a BWell soup will cost $1.79.  

Fast Facts

  • 21% of operators offer customers incentives to purchase healthful selections.
  • 55% of operators who offer incentives use frequent buying programs to spur healthful purchases.