Texas Schools Photograph Lunches Calories

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chicken nuggetsIn the battle over childhood obesity, some strange but innovative tools have been used, and some simple (and likely more effective) ones ignored. A recently-begun program in Texas where photographs are taken of cafeteria trays is certainly interesting, though it isn’t clear how effective it will be – or how “correct” this move actually is. Some say it’s a waste of money. I say the money would be better spent on giving the same children access to local, fresh produce.

Still, the program is federally funded by the USDA. It is targeted at elementary schools in low-income and high-minority neighborhoods, where childhood obesity rates are particularly high. No, it won’t be installing community gardens in these areas that need it so badly, or moving out the bodegas in favor of farmer’s markets. Instead, it will be taking photographs of cafeteria trays.

When a student fills their tray at lunchtime, it will be photographed before they go to their table. Then, when they are done eating, another photograph will be taken before they dump their tray. A computer analysis will estimate what was consumed including the calories and nutritional content. The idea is for parents to be aware of the choices their child is making in school.

It’s an idea that might give parents some insight into how their children are fed under the national School Lunch program (where tater tots are vegetables). But it’s unlikely that the program will solve any childhood obesity problems.

Five schools in San Antonio are taking part and the program will last four years. A $2 million grant is being used to fund the cameras and software. Two million dollars.

“Researchers hope parents will change eating habits at home once they see what their kids are choosing in schools,” says the Associated Press. But this ambitious hope is pretty lofty.

Childhood obesity rates are higher in areas of low income for several reasons, but mainly because of availability and economics. Cheap food is largely unhealthy food. Also, low-income housing doesn’t offer space for gardening and farmer’s markets are usually nowhere to be found. In inner cities, groceries are often bought at corner stores where there is no fresh produce in sight. Poor children aren’t unhealthy because their parents don’t care, but because we’ve created a system that makes it near-impossible for them to eat healthful foods.

If that $2 million was spent on truly helping low-income families gain access to healthy foods rather than “teaching them a lesson” like some haughty father-figure, it might actually make a difference. Taking photos at mealtime should be left to social-networking foodies, not school officials with misdirected money to waste.