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Camera to track kids' food choices in San Antonio school cafeteriasRecently, we heard about an elementary school in Chicago that had banned students from bringing home-packed lunches in an effort to monitor and improve what kids were eating. Now, cafeteria cameras are photographing kids’ lunch tray choices? At least, that’s what’s happening in five San Antonio elementary schools, thanks to a a $2 million federally-funded research project.

Here’s how it works: Students whose parents have given consent for them to participate will be identified by a barcode placed on their lunch trays. After the child has loaded his plate, a camera above the cafeteria cashier will snap a photo of each tray to record his lunch choices. Once lunch is over, and trays are returned to the kitchen, another camera in the trash area will photograph what foods were actually eaten. A computer program will then analyze the photo to identify every piece of food left on the plate, and calculate the number of calories and nutrients the child consumed.

At a glance, the idea seems intrusive, but the researchers think that getting a better idea of what kids are (and aren’t) eating, can help them to develop and improve programs to prevent childhood obesity. And, as parents will be receiving reports of what their child chooses to eat, health officials also hope this will motivate moms and dads to encourage healthy eating habits at home. Meanwhile the schools are anticipating that the technology will help them to create healthier lunches based on foods kids actually like to eat.

Though only children whose parents allow them to participate will be monitored, and they will remain anonymous (students won’t be photographed and their tray barcodes will be used to match the before-and-after photos), the program has stirred up some controversy. Some skeptics claim that it will only confirm what parents already know: that kids like high-fat, sugary foods and eat too much of them. Other critics say that the $2 million going towards the project would be better spent on nutrition education, or on reforming the school lunches themselves.

The San Antonio project starts next school year and is being conducted by The Social and Health Research Center, a San Antonio-based nonprofit organization.
The program has funding for four years and researchers are still improving the software, but if it proves successful in the five pilot schools, they hope to take the system nationwide.

What do you think? Would you consent to your child’s school photographing what he eats? There’s no doubt that school lunches should be healthier, but it’s also true that, when given a choice, kids tend to skimp on healthier foods in favor of something they consider more appealing. Do you think programs like this one will help students, parents, and schools make healthier choices?

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