A Game of ‘I Spy’ in the Lunch Line

By Caroline – May 2, 2011


The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s current Children’s Food and Environment State Indicator Report examines the three major food environments of American children: child care, school, and community. And when it comes to the school scene, the information is scary. Nearly 65% of high schools and middle schools allow sodas and other sugary drinks to be sold on campus, more than 50% stock vending machines with junk, and almost 50% allow junk-food advertising on school grounds. The Journal of the American Dietetic Association recently found that 40% of the calories kids and teens consume on a daily basis come from fat and sugar. Yikes.

With nearly half of American children and teens being overweight or obese and that statistic on the rise, the incessant bombardment of junk-food advertising on TV and the availability of unhealthy choices in school lunchrooms and vending machines is coming under new, scrutiny. Very, very close scrutiny. As in, sophisticated technology.

A new $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture has allowed several schools in San Antonio to place cameras in cafeteria lines and trash areas. These cameras will document what kids buy for lunch and how much of it they consume. For the pilot program, cameras have been installed in five public elementary schools with high rates of child obesity and poverty. Using food-recognition software, a computer program analyzes the shape, color, volume, density and texture of the items on a child’s tray, and cross references the information with a database of 7,500 foods. This will allow researchers to track calories, fat, fiber, sugar, protein and more in every meal.

Some argue that nobody needs Big Brother to figure out that kids will order tater tots instead of fruit and will eat the cheese and bacon out of their salads before touching the tomatoes. But the idea of the study not only to help schools create healthier lunches that kids will eat, but to also determine where the most pressing changes should be made and to better understand how diet effects rates of obesity and weight-related disease like Type 2 diabetes in children. The study has funding for four years, and if successful may continue in other schools throughout the nation.


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