Smile, Kids! You're On Calorie Camera

Fruit or fries? Choose carefully, young lady. You're on film.

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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  • by Anonymous on May 12, 2011 at 01:12 PM
    I thought the schools already got rid of the junk food. Why the cameras?
  • by Al Location: Here on May 12, 2011 at 11:02 AM
    Why not only offer more healthy foods and less unhealthy foods? Wonder how many strawberries, bluberries, brocolli, etc could be purchased with the same amount spent on the cameras? Just saying...
  • by Fran on May 12, 2011 at 10:37 AM
    Serve healthy meals in the first place an it won't be a problem. Get rid of the junk. This is a waste of tax payer dollars as long as they still feed them fried and junk food.
  • by Labbrat on May 12, 2011 at 08:12 AM
    There is an easy solution to the problem. Do not offer the junk food at school at all. That way the kids living in poverty, who are recieving free lunch at school, will have to eat at least one healthy meal a day.
    • reply
      by ? on May 12, 2011 at 09:23 AM in reply to Labbrat
      That would work until they bring their own lunch; the problem is deeper than just junk food during lunch. The real problem is that people just don't care about what they eat, even more so in the south; but that’s just how people have been raised down here, they continue to eat the same foods their parents raised them on or they use the excuse of "not having time" to make a half-way decent meal for children. Schools shouldn't even provide meals for children; I'm mean really, how long does it take to make a healthy sandwich with wheat bread, to put an apple in a bag, or to get them to start drinking more water than soda; think how much money that would save the schools.
    • reply
      by Melissa on May 12, 2011 at 09:23 AM in reply to Labbrat
      Spot on.
    • reply
      by Labbrar on May 12, 2011 at 10:15 AM in reply to Labbrat
      It is true they could bring their own food, but the schools do not have to contribute to the problem. I don't know many people that would turn don a free meal even if it's not exactly what they want to eat.
  • by Anonymous on May 12, 2011 at 06:57 AM
    Sheesh people, they're just trying to gather a little information. If y'all would stop buying your fat, spoiled kids junk food we wouldn't have an epidemic of obesity. Chinese kids are learning math while ours are stuffing Twinkies in their mouths.
    • reply
      by Anon2 on May 12, 2011 at 09:09 AM in reply to
      Word. I'm sick of fat people eating up my tax dollars with their Medicaid costs and so-called "disability" costs. Its only a waste if they don't do anything with the information.
      • reply
        by Viking on May 12, 2011 at 08:28 PM in reply to Anon2
        You will NEVER get back what you have paid in, so quit crying about the Medicad cost. The people who really need to get on disability are the only ones who will get close to what the average person pays into taxes. (Yes there are many dead beats out there who don't pay in but get the benifits. That's anissue for later.) My tax dollars should not be wasted on a program when the government has no place in the issue to begin with. And yes, nothing constructive will be done once the study is done.
    • reply
      by Viking on May 12, 2011 at 08:22 PM in reply to
      Get a clue. The government has NO RIGHT to push into our everyday lives. This is small step that leads to larger steps in teh future. We are a LONG way from what the Founding Fathers envisioned.
  • by Barbara Location: Beulaville NC on May 12, 2011 at 06:01 AM
    This is about the stupidest thing i have ever seen in my life.When these children get to their table, how many trade things with other kids? Oh God, this is such a waste of money and time, and shows just how ignorant people can be
  • by Curious Location: Greenville on May 12, 2011 at 06:01 AM
    Is this not the Dumbest Idea ever? We already know what kids are putting on their plates! Cheeseburgers,Pizza,French Fries, Ice Cream. All the Green(good stuff) gets pushed to the side. This is truely a waste of money.
  • by jerry Location: enc on May 12, 2011 at 05:52 AM
    Well, just when you think you`ve seen everything. What will be the results of this "study", force-feed healthy food into the schoolkids?
    • reply
      by Cliff on May 12, 2011 at 08:29 AM in reply to jerry
      How 'Bout Making Schoolkids Into Vegetarians? That's What They Want!!!!
  • by Viking Location: Greenville on May 12, 2011 at 05:47 AM
    The road to hell is paved with "good" intentions. If this catches on, it will only lead to the younger generations accepting the Governement having greater control over thier lives. We are already to far down that road as it is.
  • by Gary Location: Winterville on May 12, 2011 at 05:29 AM
    Classy, Flush that money right down the toilet.
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