Kids accustomed to wolfing down nothing but chicken nuggets and fistfuls of fries might not feel as comfortable doing so at several elementary schools in San Antonio, Texas. In what some say is a bizarre mix of Orwellian intrusiveness and health-conscious fanaticism, the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) is poised to become the first to install high-tech camera systems that will monitor and identify all the food students eat in five of its school cafeterias.
Roberto Trevino of the San Antonio Social and Health Research Center received a US$2-million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to execute the idea. The hope is that it will help accurately measure what children are eating and eventually affect their food choices. “We know the present research science is not accurate,” says Trevino. “Most of it depends on self-reporting, on surveys, on pencil and paper. We’ve been funded to develop a new instrument to measure human nutrition.”
This is important, he says, because accurate accounts of nutritional intake are vital in the fight against childhood obesity. According to the Texas Children’s Hospital, more than 40 per cent of children in Texas are obese or overweight. “In order for us to attack that problem we need to understand it, and in order to understand it we need better measuring tools.”
Each student at participating schools will be assigned a tray with a bar code. When they approach the lunch counter, the camera will scan the bar code and snap a picture of the food they’ve chosen. Once they’ve finished eating, another camera will photograph their leftovers. After some refining, Trevino says the cameras will differentiate between food items, like apples or mashed potatoes. Based on variables like size, shape and colour, the cameras will calculate the nutritional value of the food students have eaten, as well as how many calories they consume. Report cards detailing what students are eating will then be sent home to parents. This gives the project the potential to go beyond measurement to influence behaviour, says Trevino.
Trevino wants the cameras to be installed in low-income-area schools, where levels of childhood obesity are typically higher. In the SAISD, more than 90 per cent of students come from low-income homes, says district spokesperson Leslie Price. “We feel that the health and nutrition of students is critical, and anything that’s going to help determine the effectiveness of our programs is very helpful.”
But the initiative has faced some opposition. Right-wing commentators on Fox News slammed the project for being invasive, and SouthernNationalist.com described it in a similar fashion: “Big Brother is spying on children in Texas elementary schools.” Others feel federal funds could be better spent elsewhere, suggesting a simple menu upgrade would do the trick. “It’s a total waste of taxpayer money,” San Antonio resident Don Bowles told WOAI News.
Still, Trevino says 90 per cent of the parents at the schools he’s suggested for the program have agreed to participate. “The best way to affect human behaviour is through self-monitoring, self-reflection,” he says. “You get a report back that says you consumed close to 1,800 calories, you’re probably going to think it over before you have that meal again.”
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