SAN DIEGO – A new study presented over the weekend at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in San Diego shows that students will eat “healthy” school food if they’re bribed with stickers and prizes.

The study centered around lunches prepared under new federal school food restrictions championed by first lady Michelle Obama that have been wildly unpopular in school districts across the country.

But the results of a two-phase intervention with kindergarten through sixth-grade students at a Cincinnati school shows smiley face stickers and other small prizes like temporary tattoos and mini beach balls will convince some students to choke down Michelle O’s “healthy” lunches, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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“Results showed plain milk purchases increased from 7.4 percent to 48 percent of total milk sales – a 549 percent increase,” according to a news release posted to Eurekalert.org. “Meanwhile, chocolate milk selection decreased from 86.5 percent to 44.6 percent of total milk sales.”

The boost is attributed to green smiley faces researchers stuck next to foods they want students to eat, like fruits, vegetables, plain fat-free milk and entrees with whole grains. But officials also implemented a second phase after a few months of smiley faces, which awarded prizes to students who picked a “Power Plate” lunch, which consisted of the four healthiest foods served for the day, according to the news release.

The prizes were a hit, and students bought more of the “healthy” meals, which meant “fruit selection increased by 20 percent from 1 to 1.2 items per student per day, and vegetable selection rose by 62 percent from .74 to 1.2 times per student per day. Power Plate selection increased 335 percent from baseline.”

“I looks like we found a very promising, low-cost and effective way of improving the nutrition of elementary school children,” Robert Siegel, medical director at the Heart Institute at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and author of the study, said in the release.

“This type of program may be a useful component in schools trying to improve the nutrition and health of students,” he said.

But what the study doesn’t show is how much of the food actually ends up in students’ stomachs, rather than the garbage can. School food waste has skyrocketed since the Health and Hunger Free Kids Act – Michelle O’s school food restrictions – went into effect in 2012, mostly because of a federal requirement that all students take a fruit or vegetable, whether they want one or not.

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The study’s findings are significant because many students simply refuse to eat food prepared with the government’s strict restrictions on calories, fat, sugar, sodium, whole wheat and other nutritional aspects.

Existing research shows one million fewer students are eating school lunches since Michelle Obama first started promoting the changes as an effort to fight childhood obesity through bureaucracy.

In many schools, officials have come to the conclusion that it makes more financial sense to ditch the National School Lunch Program – the vehicle for the federal restrictions – and subsidies for free- and reduced-price lunches to serve students food they’ll actually eat and buy.

Wisconsin’s Oconomowoc Area School District is the latest to consider the move for its high school lunch program.

“Participation is low. The new federal lunch guidelines, with limitations as to what can be served with regard to serving size and total calories, isn’t really conducive, in my opinion, to growing adolescents,” Oconomowoc superintendent Roger Rindo told Lake Country Now.

Lunch participation at the high school has dropped from about 61 percent in 2010 to about 47 percent today, and Rindo thinks it’s mostly because of federal calorie restrictions that are leaving students hungry. Nearly every day area restaurants are delivering food to students at after school activities to make up for their lunch shortfall, he said.

“It’s almost daily. Those kids are hungry,” Rindo told the news site. “We have kids grabbing a sub at the end of the day prior to practice. Our drama kids are there to 8 p.m. practicing. If you have a 4:30 p.m. game, those kids eat lunch at 10:30 a.m.; they are eating 600 calories and are supposed to be burning calories and performing at 6 p.m. at night. That’s just a tough thing for kids to do without supplementing it.

“These kids are there at 7:15 a.m., and a lot are not leaving until 7 p.m., and they are supposed to get by on 600 calories?” the superintendent questioned.