Health officials in San Antonio recently received a $2 million dollar grant to pay for a surveillance and analytical program that would more accurately study what kids eat while at school. According to a report on CNN, small cameras in the cafeteria would take pictures of some children’s lunches and analyze its nutritional value. Then, once the student returns his tray, a second video is taken, recording what was (and wasn’t) eaten so the program can calculate the total nutritional intake for that meal.
It may sound like high tech science fiction, but the program’s creators say it has much more in common with the old saying “the camera never lies,” than with George Orwell’s 1984.
According to the program’s designers, when researching childhood obesity, camera-based food analytics provide more accurate data than self-reported surveys, because in many cases parents and kids often underreport the amount of junk food they’re eating. If too many people involved in an obesity study turn in falsified data, researchers are left with an inaccurate picture to make their recommendations with. In theory, cameras would help eliminate some of that fudged data.
Using surveillance equipment to study kids’ lunch habits is sure to jar some medical ethicists, but the San Antonio program isn’t as covert as it sounds. For starters, it’s voluntary; parents must give permission for their child to be entered into the program so no one is unknowingly monitored. Secondly, the cameras will record and track students’ lunch habits through a barcode system—no faces will be recorded—which will provide a better sense of anonymity for the children involved. Once collected, school officials will use the information to determine what kids are eating, and plan school meals around the more popular healthy menu items. Parents who request to see their child’s lunch record will have access, which could help them plan home meals that balance out their child’s diet based on what was eaten at school.
So, while the study may not be quite as covert as it sounds, is using all this technology to figure out what kids are eating at lunch really worth the hefty $2 million price tag? Emily Israel, PhD, associate director of Children’s Optimal Weight for Life clinic, says she has some concerns with the format, but still likes the researchers’ willingness to look a the obesity problem from a different angle.
“Programs like this certainly are an interesting way for researchers to collect data that isn’t skewered by the confounding variables of self-reporting, but this method doesn’t account for the whole picture either,” she says. “So many other contributing factors lead to obesity. Things like access to healthier foods, environmental and media influences all play a role, as do biological and psychological factors. The medical community needs to take all of this into account when studying the epidemic.”
As Israel sees it, pinpointing exactly what kids are eating is important for identifying poor food choices, but doesn’t address the root causes of obesity. Only when those factors are understood and treated will most children achieve real success in reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.
“Making kids and their families aware of how their food choices affect their weight is important, but if you focus on that exclusively I think you may be missing a whole host of other contributing factors,” she says. “People don’t just eat because they are hungry, they eat because they are bored, they eat because they are sad, and so on. Monitoring how much and what types of food these kids are eating is good, but that info alone isn’t likely to affect change for a majority of these students.”
San Antonio’s camera program may be a little too narrowly focused, and it’s still unclear what prevents children in the program from getting junk food from other kids at the lunch table and simply not reporting it, but Israel says she still supports the idea of researchers taking a more innovative approach to studying obesity. “I think all research that truly enhances our knowledge of obesity is important, even when it’s collected through less traditional methods,” she says. “This particular study may raise some serious questions about only focusing on one aspect of a very broad problem, but I still support the idea of thinking outside the box when it comes to furthering our understanding of such a complex epidemic.”