Health officials in San Antonio, Texas, are trying to reduce obesity and improve eating habits at five elementary schools. They recently launched a $2 million research project that will photograph students’ lunch trays before they sit down to eat and later take a snapshot of the leftovers. A computer program then will analyze the photos to identify every piece of food on the plate and then calculates the number of calories each student consumed. This project, funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, is the first of its kind in the nation.
The cameras, only the size of pocket flashlights, point 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. They think the parents that haven’t granted permission simply don’t understand the purpose of the program; some believe that their students are being restricted of what they can eat, but in fact, they can choose whatever they want.
Each lunch tray gets a bar code sticker to identify a student. After the children load up their plates down the line, a camera above the cashier takes a picture of each tray.
When lunch is over and the plates are returned to the kitchen, another camera takes a snapshot of what’s left. Echon’s program then analyzes the before and after photos to calculate calories consumed and the values of 128 other nutrients. It identifies foods by measuring size, shape, color and density. The results are sent to parents and researchers. Researchers hope eating habits at home will change once moms and dads see what their kids are choosing in school.