June 30, 2015
by Jeff Swigert

The purpose of The Nudge Project, a joint collaborative effort by Feeding America and Cornell University, is to accomplish two main goals:

  1. To achieve a better understanding of the choice environments at food pantries and,
  2. To reframe these environments in a way that makes choosing healthy options easier for the people food pantries serve.

These changes to the choice architecture – or environments – are referred to as “nudges” and, though they have proven effective in a variety of other settings (e.g. schools lunchrooms, grocery stores, etc.) our research is at the forefront in establishing the effectiveness of “nudges” in the food pantry setting where there exists a unique set of both challenges and opportunities.

As an economist with the Cornell University team, my role has been to provide technical assistance in the experimental design, set up, staffing and implementation stages of the field experiments. Recently, as part of the design phase, it was my privilege to fly out to each of the sites included in the study and meet with food bank and food pantry administrators to discuss their operations and to get a first-hand perspective on the choice architecture in place. At each, I’ve been impressed by the passion and devotion these men and women bring to their work—granted, the type of individuals who choose to devote their careers to fighting hunger and helping those in poverty is quite unique, so perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me—but it is incredible what each of these individuals have accomplished in the face of extremely difficult circumstances.  By far, the most fulfilling part of my job is interacting with these incredible people.

There are a several reasons I believe that behavioral economic interventions to “nudge” healthier client choice show a lot of promise for improving outcomes of food pantry clients. The first has to do with the fact that the principles that “nudges” are based on are behaviorally efficient. That is, they acknowledge that clients are human beings and are designed to eliminate barriers to choice of healthy foods to encourage like fresh produce—whether this be by making an item more accessible or by highlighting its desirable attributes. The second is that “nudges” respect the dignity of clients, preserving the right to choose or not choose items. This is because“nudges” operate passively in the background of a pantry’s food distribution. In fact, it may come as a surprise but “nudges” are already in place at every single pantry in the nation. Many “nudges” are just in place by default rather than by design. Our work aims to raise awareness of “nudges” that are already present at pantries, to highlight their implicit tradeoffs and potentially, to point the way to more effective ways of arranging the choice environment the people Feeding America serves encounter.

We are excited to begin the main phase of the project at food pantries served by Feeding America-member food banks Food Bank for Larimer County, Community Foodbank of New Jersey and North Texas Food Bank. Once the project is completed, we will run analysis. Findings, along with policy recommendations that highlight best practices and what we’ve learned will then be circulated.

*Jeff Swigert is an economist at Cornell University whose work focuses on application of economic principles to understand and help alleviate challenges faced by those who struggle with poverty, poor health and limited access to education and employment opportunities.

Video our video which explains the Nutrition and Health Strategy "Nudges".


Tags: Innovative Solutions to Hunger , Nutrition

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