published Thursday, May 12th, 2011

In Texas schools, a picture’s worth 1,000 calories

Dr. Roger Echon, displays the digital food analysis equipment being demonstrated at White Elementary on Wednesday, May 11, 2011 in San Antonio. Health officials trying to reduce obesity and improve eating habits at five San Antonio elementary schools unveiled a $2 million research project Wednesday that will photograph studentsí lunch trays before they sit down to eat and later take a snapshot of the leftovers. The project, funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, is the first of its kind in the nation.Researchers say about 90 percent of parents gave permission to record every morsel of food their child eats. (AP Photo/The San Antonio Express-News, Tom Reel) RUMBO DE SAN ANTONIO OUT; NO SALES
Dr. Roger Echon, displays the digital food analysis equipment being demonstrated at White Elementary on Wednesday, May 11, 2011 in San Antonio. Health officials trying to reduce obesity and improve eating habits at five San Antonio elementary schools unveiled a $2 million research project Wednesday that will photograph studentsí lunch trays before they sit down to eat and later take a snapshot of the leftovers. The project, funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, is the first of its kind in the nation.Researchers say about 90 percent of parents gave permission to record every morsel of food their child eats. (AP Photo/The San Antonio Express-News, Tom Reel) RUMBO DE SAN ANTONIO OUT; NO SALES

By PAUL J. WEBER

SAN ANTONIO — Smile, schoolchildren. You’re on calorie camera.

Health officials trying to reduce obesity and improve eating habits at five San Antonio elementary schools unveiled a $2 million research project Wednesday that will photograph students’ lunch trays before they sit down to eat and later take a snapshot of the leftovers.

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 mash 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.

Here’s how it works: Each lunch tray gets a bar code sticker to identify a student. After the children load up their plates down the line — cole slaw or green beans? french fries or fruit? — 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.

Parents will receive the data for their children, and researchers hope eating habits at home will change once moms and dads see what their kids are choosing in school. The data also will be used to study what foods children are likely to choose and how much they’re eating.

Nine-year-old Aaliyah Haley went through the lunch line at W.W. White Elementary with cheesy enchiladas, Spanish rice, fat-free chocolate milk and an apple. Two cameras, one pointed directly down and another about tray-level, photographed her food before she sat down to eat.

“I liked it. It’s good food that was good for me,” Haley said.

Just how healthy it was researchers don’t know yet. Echon is still developing the program and expects to spend the first year of the four-year grant fine-tuning the equipment. By the 2012-13 school year, the Social Health & Research Center plans to have a prototype in place.

Echon has already made some changes to the project. Echon learned that mashed potatoes served on some campuses are lumpier than those served on others. The program now accounts for consistencies and texture.

The database already includes about 7,500 different varieties of food. Echon said he started from scratch because there was no other food-recognition software to build upon. He insisted on creating technology to record meals because asking 8-year-olds to remember what they ate and writing it down is seldom accurate.

Researches selected poor, minority campuses where obesity rates and diabetes risk are higher. Among those is White Elementary, which is just off a busy interstate highway on the city’s poor east side, on a street dotted with fast-food restaurants and taquerias.

In Bexar County, where the five pilot schools are located, 33 percent of children living in poverty are obese.

Researchers warn that obesity is not always the result of children eating too many calories. A previous study by the nonprofit center reported that 44 percent of children studied consumed calories below daily minimum requirements, but nearly one-third were still obese. Seven percent screened positive for type 2 diabetes.

Mark Davis, the school’s principal, said getting consent from parents hasn’t been a problem. He suspects the small number of parents who withhold consent don’t understand the project, perhaps thinking it limits what their child can eat at school.

“Nothing in the program says they can’t have something,” Davis said. “It just says we’re tracking what it is.”

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RightWing said...

Just another why to keep tabs on us. They already know what you buy from the grocery with those "bonus cards", know where you are through the GPS in your phone, know what you like to view on the net with behavior targeting, know what you look like half nude with the body scanners. Where's my rock so I can hide under it. Ugh...

-RW

May 12, 2011 at 9:06 a.m.
SSandersMA said...

Misguided to the point of sadistic. As a sociologist who researches fat stigma, I have seen many draconian measures taken in the much hyped anti obesity crusade, but I have never seen anything this addle brained. Where to start! We have been on code red alert against fat kids for over 50 yrs. Eisenhower was one of the 1rst presidents to start the health nags. Fat kids have already had their bodies declared public domain. Surveillance is as standard as utensils at meals as every bite they eat is already subject to scrutiny. If monitoring the kids was successful, if would have worked long before now. Not only is it ineffective, it is counterproductive. Study after study from social psychology tells us that when something is forbidden, we want it more. Many kids will 'eat healthy' at school, then go out for what they want afterwords. Does it take a rocket scientist to figure that out??? Sadly some kids, forever intimidated by the fact that there every bite is recorded, will develop lifelong battles with eating disorders. It is UNBELIEVABLE that these alleged social researchers would not take that into consideration. What is perhaps the most tragic fact in this nutritional 1984 nightmare is that diabetes in poor kids is NOT just a matter of diet and exercise. Poor children, and children of color share a disproportionate burden of pollution. The phenomena is known as environmental racism. Dioxins, environmental estrogen, and other endocrine disrupters are playing havoc with their metabolisms. Diabetes is the result and weight gain is a side effect. But because the corporations don't want to change how they do things (and still rake in the diet billions) we don't hear about this! How unfair to scar poor children for the rest of their lives by invading their personal boundaries, never letting them have a guilt free bite, and yet do absolutely nothing to clean up their environment and eliminate the true cause of disease.

If you are one of the many folks who disagree with this program 1)Write the Dept of Agriculture and let you feelings be known. Myself, I am calling for the resignation of whoever approved the funding. From where I sit, there is NO excuse to repeat the mistakes of the past. 2) Let the directors of this program and the administrators know how you feel. 3)If you are a parent and it is coming to your school, refuse to allow your child to participate 4)If you child does participate and your child develops anorexia, bulimia, or compulsive/binge eating, sue. If they did any real research, they would know the risks involved.

May 13, 2011 at 5:34 p.m.
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