May 13, 2011 -- Say cheese, chicken sandwich.
The government is spending $2 million on cafeteria cameras to figure out what, and how much, kids eat at school. Unveiled Wednesday at five Texas elementary schools, the high-tech set-up will snap photos of kids' lunch trays before they check out and after they eat to generate a nutritional report card for parents.
Some researchers call the expensive experiment a boon to food science, but skeptics worry it's a boondoggle that will only reaffirm what parents already know: Kids like high-sugar, high-fat and high-salt foods, and eat too much of them.
"A picture may be worth a thousand words, but we already have many thousands of published words on this topic -- more than enough to know, in my mind, what's broken," said Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. "My preference is to spend money now on the solutions."
The four-year project, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will have programmers "teaching" the cafeteria cams to recognize food available in school cafeterias and calculate kids' nutritional intake based on the remnants left over after lunch. That information will then be sent home so that parents can see how much sugar, fat, protein, salt, vitamins and minerals their kids are really consuming.
"The best way to modify behavior is through self-reflection, self monitoring and goal setting," said Dr. Roberto Trevino, director of San Antonio's Social and Health Research Center overseeing the project. "We're trying to document [nutritional intake] in a better way and produce a report we can send home to parents to inform them about the level of vitamins and nutrients their children are getting from their choices."
The rise in childhood obesity and TV shows like Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution" have put school cafeterias in the spotlight. And while many schools now offer healthy choices in addition to traditional cafeteria fare, giving kids the choice between French fries and green beans might not be enough to curb the obesity epidemic.
"Poor choices will prevail where poor options prevail," Katz said.
Roughly one in six children is obese, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and childhood obesity is linked to high cholesterol, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. But changing kids' eating habits means changing the example set at home, not just the options available at schools, Trevino said.
"We need accountability. I'm hoping we can develop better instruments so we can better evaluate ourselves," he said. Kids, parents, schools and anti-obesity programs need reliable feedback in order to learn and improve, he said, justifying the camera project.
Trevino said he hopes the cameras and report cards will make parents more aware what their kids are eating, and what nutritional gaps can be easily filled by healthy, tasty foods. And while $2 million may sound like a lot for awareness, Trevino points out that the Department of Agriculture spends $17.8 billion a year on child nutrition programs, including the national school lunch program.
"What are they getting in return? We don't know," he said.