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Texas cameras to track school lunches

May 12, 2011

guardian

FOOD ANALYSIS

Dr Roger Echon of the Social and Health Research Centre displays the digital food analysis equipment which will track chlidren’s eating habits at WW White elementary school in Texas. Photograph: Tom Reel/AP

The next time children in some elementary schools in the state of Texas try to sneak extra french fries on to their tray in the cafeteria queue, the eye in the sky will be watching them.

Using a $2m (£1.3m) grant from the US department of agriculture, the schools in San Antonio are installing sophisticated cameras in the cafeteria that read barcodes embedded in the food trays.

“We’re going to snap a picture of the food tray at the cashier and we will know what has been served,” said Dr Roberto Trevino of the Social and Health Research Centre in San Antonio, which is implementing the pilot programme at five schools with high rates of childhood obesity and children living in poverty.

“When the child goes back to the disposal window, we’re going to measure the leftover.”

The goal is to cut childhood obesity by providing parents and school nutrition specialists with information on what types of food elementary students are eating.

They will then be able to design healthy meals based on students’ real-life habits, the centre’s spokeswoman Denise Jones said. Parents will also be able to use the information to help them design healthier meals at home.

“We will be able to determine whether current programmes that are aimed at preventing obesity work, and whether they are really changing students’ behaviour,” Trevino said.

Officials will receive information on the nutrient and calorie counts of the food children have actually consumed.

The technology will identify the food, capture the nutrient levels and measure the food that children eat, according to Dr Roger Echon of the centre, who designed the software.

Echon on Wednesday showed reporters a printout of the reading from one student’s tray at the WW White elementary school. It listed the size of the serving, and its calorie, fibre, sugar and protein count.

He said the software can break down the data into total monounsaturated fatty acids, soluble dietary fibre, and more than 100 other specific measures.

Trevino said the children will not be photographed, and only children who have the permission of their parents or guardians will be allowed to participate.

He said that if the effort is successful in San Antonio, the plan is to implement similar programmes in elementary schools nationwide.

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