Setting the Standard: School District Wellness Policies – Food Rewards?

by Liz Duda and Dr. David F. Keely

York County’s public school districts periodically update their wellness policies, written documents that guide district and school efforts to create supportive school-nutrition and physical-activity environments before, during and after school.  Effective wellness policies support a culture of health within a school community by establishing sustainable, uniform practices and procedures that make the healthy choice the easy choice for students, staff, and families.  

Eat Smart Move More York County supports the best practice of prohibiting the use of food rewards, as suggested in the Alliance for a Healthier Generation model wellness policy: “Foods and beverages will not be used as a reward, or withheld as punishment for any reason, such as for performance or behavior.”[1] Despite the many concerns of using food as a reward, it is common practice in some schools (e.g., a gummy worm for the quietest student in the kindergarten line; a lollipop from the 1st grade “treasure box” for good behavior; an ice cream sundae party for 3rd-5th graders who complete extra math sheets; a hard candy for completing a 6th-grade assignment). Condemned by experts, food rewards can undermine family and school efforts to promote healthy habits, and put students at risk for obesity, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and other serious health problems. Healthy schools experience higher attendance rates, greater academic success, increased family engagement, and reduced staff turnover[2].  

The Use of Food as a Reward in Classrooms: The Disadvantages and the Alternatives[3] explains that the wrong message is delivered by using food (usually candy or other unhealthy food) as a reward for good behavior or academic performance at school. Using food as a reward creates an undesirable emotional connection between achievement and unhealthy food. This white paper presents research showing that using food as a reward may increase children’s overall desire for unhealthy foods, cause overeating, make children more likely to develop eating disorders, and create a lifelong, unhealthy emotional connection with food. Food rewards interfere with children’s natural ability to regulate their eating.


American Academy of Pediatrics 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.
American Academy of Family Physicians Food should not be used for non-nutritive purposes such as comfort or reward. Do not provide food for comfort or as a reward.
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Do not use food as a reward. When children are rewarded with sweets or snack food, they may decide that these foods are better or more valuable than healthier foods.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Do not use food as a reward.
American Psychological Association Avoid using food as a reward for good behavior. Making unhealthy food a reward for good deeds promotes the idea that healthy food isn’t as appealing as junk food or something to look forward to.
Mayo Clinic As a general rule, don’t use food as a reward or punishment.
Yale Medical Group Using food as a reward or as a punishment can undermine the healthy eating habits that you’re trying to teach your children. Giving sweets, chips, or soda as a reward often leads to children’s overeating foods that are high in sugar, fat, and empty calories. Worse, it interferes with kids’ natural ability to regulate their eating, and it encourages them to eat when they’re not hungry to reward themselves.


/[1] Source: Alliance for a Healthier Generation,

[2] Source: Alliance for a Healthier Generation,

[3] Fedewaf, Dr. Alicia, University of Kentucky, College of Education and Anita Courtney, M.S., R.D., Tweens Nutrition and Fitness Coalition, retrieved from

Further information can be found at: Constructive Classroom Rewards: Promoting Good Habits While Protecting Children’s Health at, by Center for Science in the Public Interest.