by Caroline

Yesterday, I came across the news that an elementary school in San Antonio has instituted a new program of photographing bar coded student lunch trays to track what the students eat:

A computer program then analyzes the photos to identify every piece of food on the plate — right down to how many ounces are left in that lump of mashed potatoes — and calculates the number of calories each student scarfed down.

The project, funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, is the first of its kind in the nation. The cameras, about the size of pocket flashlights, point only toward the trays and don’t photograph the students. Researchers say about 90 percent of parents gave permission to record every morsel of food their child eats.

“We’re trying to be as passive as possible. The kids know they’re being monitored,” said Dr. Roger Echon, who works for the San Antonio-based Social & Health Research Center, and who is building the food-recognition program.

Now, I understand the impulse behind this project. I’m certainly curious about what my kids eat for lunch, and I know that there is a gap between what they put on their trays and what they actually eat. I’m lucky I have the time to volunteer in my kids’ cafeteria regularly, so I don’t need a camera to tell me that when Eli says he ate “a piece of bread, carrots and a cup of water” — a bird’s lunch by any measure — sometimes it’s only a couple bites of even that. He’s too caught up in the environment to focus on eating much.

But I also don’t need a camera — or time in the lunchroom — to see him run happily out of school each day, energetic and lively. He eats an afternoon snack, he eats a good dinner, he sleeps well. He’s a healthy kid by any measure. So while I wish (I really do wish) he ate more in the middle of the day, I’m trying to let him be his own kid.

But if he weren’t healthy? If the chaos of the lunchroom kept him from choosing or eating a good meal? If I didn’t volunteer in the lunch room every month to see his meal, then would I want that camera? I really don’t think so. We submit to so much “passive” surveillance already (cameras at intersections, ATMs, street corners), I object to exposing children to more, and frankly this kind of monitoring seems a backwards approach to healthy eating, anyway. I think maybe instead of cameras, we could take some time in the classroom talking about what makes a healthy lunch, so that when the kids do go into the cafeteria, they make some good choices. I expect — hope — they’re doing that in San Antonio, too, and probably in your school district, as well.

However — I spent one year of elementary school eating French fries and coconut ice cream bars for lunch. My kids often make themselves olive sandwiches. Perhaps I am not the best one to talk about these lunch room issues or healthy choices. So I’m curious, if your school district proposed putting a camera in the lunch room and offered you a regular report on your kid’s lunch, would you want it?