Surveillance cams at elementary schools monitor food intake

Some elementary schools in San Antonio, Texas are installing videocameras in their cafeterias to track what the young people are eating. Funded by a US Department of Agriculture grant, the project is meant to collect data that could be used to fight childhood obesity. According to the San Antonio-based Social and Health Research Center, the hope is that the information will lead to better menus at home and at school. Seems like one way to reduce the intake of crap food at elementary school cafeterias (and at home) would be to not serve crap food. From Reuters:
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 center, who designed the program.

Echon on Wednesday showed reporters a printout of the reading from one student's tray at W.W. White Elementary School. It listed the size of the serving, and its calorie, fiber, sugar, and protein count.

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

"Cameras in U.S. schools to record calorie counts"


  1. Oh, I see. It’s only intended to capture the information when they pick up the tray and when they dispose of it by reading a barcode embedded in the tray and measuring the leftovers to see what they did and didn’t eat. It won’t be watching them constantly, as I’d assumed from the quote, which leaves out that information.

    Considering how much kids share food, I wonder how accurate this will really be.

    1. At my kids’ school, sharing is strictly prohibited. I think they are terrified of allergic reactions and want to prevent any kind of black market in bacon and other religiously sensitive foods.

      I think this is great and I would assume the people behind the program are smart enough to compensate for other problems commenters here are coming up with.

      I can’t wait to hear about what they find. I suspect they already know most of the problems (volunteer in a cafeteria for a few days and it becomes pretty obvious).

      1. At my kids’ school, sharing is strictly prohibited. I think they are terrified of allergic reactions and want to prevent any kind of black market in bacon and other religiously sensitive foods.

        Yes, because (literally) heaven forbid a child have an mind opening experience that questions superstitions.

        My experience was reading the National Geographic book “Our Universe,” and realizing that the ancient Greeks and Romans weren’t just pretending to worship Zeus/Jupiter, Chronos/Saturn, Ares/Mars, and all the rest because they knew they were myths and simply waiting for Jesus to come. It also only took a child’s leap of logic to realize that perhaps in a few thousand years, someone would be reading about the myth of Jesus and all the rest.

        To bring this back to bacon: It’s not my fault your bronze age culture couldn’t figure out how to cook meat thoroughly.

  2. Sounds like an interesting project. Wonder if they’ll also capture how the kids eat (e.g., how much time they spend eating, how much of their meal they leave unfinished). It’s not just what you eat but how you eat and overall eating habits that factor into issues with weight and body type.

    1. I wouldn’t be surprised. It’d be pretty trivial to keep track of when the pictures were taken. They’re probably using some sort of machine vision camera to get the data; even if you don’t know how to code, it’s really easy to set one of those up with a dedicated control computer and just take pictures using the included demonstration software. If you know how to code, you can do all sorts of neat stuff. If the barcode is visible from above, they could probably detect and read the barcode and take a picture of the leftover food at the same time. Timestamping the files would be easy, and barring that they could just look at the time/date the output files were created.

      As far as cost, they’d be looking at maybe five thousand dollars (low to mid level camera, computer, mounting equipment) per station, in addition to time to set up and maintain the equipment, person-time to code the control software, maybe some money for training people on the program, money for the people running the whole thing. Depending on how many schools they eventually enroll in the program (they have five now but I’d assume they want to get more data) $2 million seems a good figure.

    2. Every parent should go have lunch with their child at least once during the school year. I was shocked after I went in a few years ago because my son, who will basically eat anything, was coming home from school hungry. Turns out his class was the last one to enter the cafeteria and, depending on how quick the line was moving, had as little as four minutes to eat his lunch. What they were doing was bringing in a classroom at a time, per grade, then dismissing them all at once. The first ones in had 25 minutes to eat, the last ones usually about five. I talked to the principal and the school board and now each classroom has an individual start and end time in the cafeteria.

      On the plus side, they don’t have a problem with kids sharing. Each kid is given a standard student lunch, and as they walk by the “extras” table, they can put anything they don’t plan to eat on the table. When a student is done eating, they can go up to the extras table and take a couple items. This is great because it recognizes that my 90 lb. 5th grader with the metabolism of a field mouse who can eat a medium pizza at a sitting needs more food than my 50lb. 3rd grader who will pick at a meal or two a day.

      This video monitoring seems like a technological solution where one is not necessary. Simply give the kids two choices, follow the trends of which are ordered the most, and do the math.

  3. Will the cameras also record the uneaten food left behind on the tray and subtract that from the totals?

    And will there be other cameras to track students through the day and identify all the snacks and meals that they consume outside the cafeteria? And take note of their physical activity (or lack thereof) throughout the day?

    Because otherwise, you’re just not getting the full picture.

  4. Sounds like a senseless waste of money to me. First of all why would anyone care what my kids eat. Secondly you know what the first thing is my kids do when they get home from school? Raid the fridge!

  5. I wonder how they will use the information that a number of kids enjoy eating the contents of their own nasal cavities. I fear what that may mean for future lunch menus.

  6. Caution. They might be seen chewing, but ARE THEY ACTUALLY SWALLOWING? Actual deglution should be monitored as well, with x-rays.

    1. They might be seen chewing, but ARE THEY ACTUALLY SWALLOWING? Actual deglution should be monitored as well, with x-rays.

      Shouldn’t be too hard to do. I hear Texas might soon have a bunch of decommissioned “pornoscanners” on its hands. Shurely they can be repurposed to this end.

  7. I heard from my 6 year old today that sometimes in his (non US based) cafeteria, they hand out stickers to the younger kids as a promotion for ‘trying something new’ or ‘having several different veggies on the plate’ … this seems to be way more fun and cost efficient then cameras (someone has to watch those tapes … better educate and motivate on the spot)

  8. Because millions of dollars worth of cameras is cheaper than, you know, putting that money towards healthy food?

    1. “Because millions of dollars worth of cameras is cheaper than, you know, putting that money towards healthy food?”
      Dude… whoever you are… would you please run for office so I can vote for you. That was the most sensible damn thing I’ve read in a while.

  9. What a waste. I can tell them how to improve kids nutrition without a video-camera study.

    Stop giving them processed food-like substances for lunch.
    Start giving them real food. A small meat, some vegetables, and a fruit for desert. Water and milk to drink, no soda or faux-juice made of high-fructose-corn-syrup and artificial flavor. 10% real fruit juice is not something to be proud of.

    This really shouldn’t be that difficult to figure out.

    1. Or just stop giving them juice in general. Juice is more of a Sometimes Food than a staple.

  10. Seems like one way to reduce the intake of crap food at elementary school cafeterias would be to not serve crap food.

    I don’t think this is very realistic, in any school.

    Even in the best scenarios, most meals, especially meals kids eat, are based around a large percentage of “good” and a small percentage of “tasty/decadent” food. Would you begrudge your kid a small serving of homefries with their 4-veggie salad?

    The problem is that, if the homefries (or whatever) are served at all, the kids will then pile up their plates with this unhealthy food. Sure, you could add a serving person to enforce strict portion control, but this would probably just end up with kids putting stuff on their plates that they know they won’t eat.

    So either you get rid of everything that kids like, or you try to work out what, from the food they are offered, they are eating, and how to steer them towards the good stuff.

    (Inb4 “there’s no reason why everything on their plates can’t be healthy: even on the healthiest plates, there is almost always at least one thing that shouldn’t be eaten to excess, even if it’s just the EVO salad dressing.)

      1. Where they are served cheese and deep-fried broccoli along with their meal. I rest my case. Did you read my post carefully?

    1. EXACTLY. I think all of us would agree that the most accurate way to determine what our children are eating during the school day is enforced daily potty breaks and a (small) team of bio-chemical analysts. This should provide much more useful data, and is somewhat less intrusive than installing more cameras in schools.

    1. That means your kid’s school is actually trying to teach them something. What a concept in modern education? You should assign the reading and have your child write a two page review.

  11. How about a USDA grant to bring back the Fruit-o-Matic? Those things were awesome! Kids would eat way more fruit, in lieu of junk, if it was cheap, chilled and dispensed by robots. And this technology already exists! BRING BACK THE FRUIT-O-MATIC!! :)

  12. This sounds like something developed for the meat industry. Gotta make sure the herd gets enough soluble fiber!!

  13. This is just silly… if they didn’t feed them GARBAGE in the first place… high fructose corn syrup delivery devices and empty calories – they’d be making more progress than surveilling them. Talk about our tax dollars at waste

  14. As SamSam sez, if kids eat crap it’s too easy to blame the cafeteria.

    I went through a phase in seventh grade where I would just buy two cookies and milk every day rather than spend my money on a meal (I think I may also have been skimming cash for comics). You could say the school were monsters for selling cookies, which is kind of harsh. Or, you could say they should forbid kids to eat only dessert, but I doubt they even thought of the possibility– a normal adult wouldn’t do that.

    People seem to be missing the fact that this is a research project, not the school system’s way of managing eating habits. Kids are totally bizarre enough to warrant scientific investigation. (Bonus datum: I would roll those cookies into little spheres before eating them).

    1. Heh. Ditto, but it was 6-pack of powdered mini donuts and two white milks. Every day, grades 10-11.

  15. I think this “surveillance” is useful.

    There are (at least) three problems schools need to deal with:

    Feeding everyone on a very limited budget.

    Serving healthy food.

    Serving food kids will eat.

    It is entirely likely that kids would toss expertly prepared healthy food, because they’re not used to it. Given a choice between a crappy piece of pizza and a plate heaped with lean meat, seasoned vegetables, and whole grain bread, most of today’s yoots will take the pizza.

  16. Dear USDA,

    Please stop. Your ridiculous ideas of what we should be eating have gotten us into this mess in the first place. Leave my kid alone.


    A parent capable of critical thinking.

  17. There is not enough privacy-outrage in these comments.

    Can parents opt their kids out?

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