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$2 million to spy on poor kids’ lunches, paid by our tax dollars

Posted by on May 12, 2011 in Blog Posts | 31 comments

I don’t even know where to start, so I think I will bullet-point this one. (Thanks to the ED Activist Network for pointing this one out…)

Here are the basics. Four schools in n San Antonio Texas, with help from the USDA (our tax money hard at work) will spend $2 million (aimed at schools with poor and minority kids) to study exactly what the kids are eating, and report it back to the parents… If you can, click on the image to enlarge. It is really disturbing.

“…high-tech cameras to photograph what foods children pile onto their trays — and later capture what they don’t finish eating”

“Researchers hope parents will change eating habits at home once they see what their kids are choosing in schools.”

these parents will “…receive regular reports showing what foods their kids are filling up on at lunch.”


• already the language is judgmental and pejorative, kids “pile” and “fill up,” they don’t make food choices… The little gluttons, the ignorant parents!
• how is this legal? Look at the photo. The little girl will have her daily food choices scrutinized by adults, by the cashier, by the camera, by her teacher, her parents…
• “once the parents see…” oh, so that’s why the kids are fat! The parents just don’t see what’s going on! If only they knew!
• I imagine most of these kids qualify for free or reduced breakfast and lunch, what if this is the only reliable meal they have? Will they be shamed into not getting enough to eat? (We know the connection between food insecurity and increased weight gain…)
• Will children focus on calories, instead of nutrition? Chose water or diet soda over milk?
• will this increase teasing or bullying?
• will this increase the number of kids who diet, become food-preoccupied, increase shame, eating in secret, binging when no one is watching??
• will these kids be protected, or will this info be used by health officials, school nurses…
• we know that food insecurity, poverty and increased rates of “obesity” are related. We know that kids who get school meals and are FED have lower rates of obesity… Why, oh why this study…
What a colossal waste of money. We already know that BMI report cards don’t make parents make better choices for their kids, though misinformed yet well-meaning public health types continue to insist on BMI report cards. I think this is invasive and possibly harmful to the kids and I’m shocked it passed muster. These kids and families are taking part in an experiment with dubious intentions and not very well thought out. If M’s school tried this I’d be protesting, demanding that all the teachers’ meals and administrators meals are also scanned, I’d encourage the kids to muck it up, to throw out food, to add foods, to add rocks to their trays, toys, crumpled up paper…
What could 2 million have paid for in terms of better food? More part-time kitchen help, more whole foods, more cooks, more folks to peel and prepare real food– in other words to actually improve what the kids are eating?

Many, as I mentioned above, might eat two meals at school every day. Couldn’t they have improved nutrition in the schools? What a missed opportunity.
It is naive,  ignorant and biased to assume that a calorie, fat, and salt intake report card will improve nutrition in the home. It just is.
What do you think? Am I missing other ways in which this is offensive? (There also seems to be a class and race element to this, from the language to the assumptions…)
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  1. Kris

    My first thought was “Someone wants a grant to work on image recognition.”

  2. Jess

    OK, I’m going to play devil’s advocate a wee bit here, because I actually am a researcher who is interested in food choices (I’m an economist and mostly come at it from a price/income angle, but I am also interested in the nutritional outcomes). Let me say from the outset that I’m pretty agnostic in my beliefs about the causes of obesity: I don’t think most of the data and research in this area is all that great. This study doesn’t sound great either, but not because of the data they’re collecting.

    The ability to track that kind of data could be incredibly useful; there are any number of interventions that could be run on a random subset of the student population, and then you could actually see what the effect on food choice/consumption is. This has/had the *potential* to be an interesting and rigorous study. Most research regarding food consumption is really bad because (a) it’s usually not the result of randomized studies and (b) food diaries are notoriously inaccurate, but there’s usually no other way to accurately record people’s choices much less their actual consumption.

    That being said, I think the potential of this study is completely ruined by the reporting aspect, i.e. telling the kids families and linking the observations directly to students without protecting their identity. First of all, it’s quite well known that observation in and of itself changes behavior; observing and then reporting to the parents is likely to be even more so. There will be no way to see an effect of some intervention (e.g. offering healthier choices at school, discussing food choice in health class, etc.) the data will be “contaminated” by the effect of the families reaction to the reporting. So basically, this is a huge experiment to see if observation and reporting to families in and of itself will constitute a successful intervention; except it’s not an experiment, because there is no control group of kids that are not being observed. And, even if it did magically have a positive effect, that kind of observation and reporting is not an intervention that can be repeated because (a) it’s prohibitively expensive and (b) it’s intrusive and it is unlikely to be adopted on a massive scale. At the end of the day, at least as far as is explained in the article, the proposed study isn’t going to be able to say jack about anything meaningful because the study seems really poorly designed.

    I actually recently developed a proposal to do an intervention in a high school based on the behavioral phenomenon that pre-selection alters peoples decision patterns: i.e. if you have the high schoolers pre-select their lunch based on a menu, do they make healthier choices than if confronted by a buffet. There are a variety of twists on how the pre-selection is to be offered in order to study different aspects of behavioral economics theory. The key difference, however, is that we will encrypt all student id’s so that none of the data could be linked back to actual students– i.e. their identities will be protected and it’s the group’s average behavior we’re studying rather than any one individual’s.

    • Caprice

      Jess, in your study who is going to decide what “healthy choices” are? The more I read about nutrition the more “healthy choices” seem to be nebulous at best. There does not seem to be a scientific consensus but only conventional wisdom. Also, what is the goal of your study? I have seen reports of studies where large populations changed their eating habits and there seem to have been no changes to health so why do another?

      • jessidehl

        Exactly. Plus, if we are trying to get kids to somehow make the “right choices”, we have to support them to be competent eaters so that they have eating success through their whole life, not just when someone is watching. I am a very good example of what overly rigid and food-controlling parents can do to screw up some kids. Which seems to be a gigantic risk with this study, given the identification and parental involvement.

      • katja

        this is a tricky issue. I generally don’t like “healthy” choices, but I do think that kids do better with VARIETY, and I imagine kids don’t get much variety often, Caprice, would you feel more comfortable if the goal was to improve variety, or study if foods were consumed more based on taste? In other words, if there was a yogurt dipping sauce, would kids eat more fruit? I have seen studies where just putting fruit in a more accessible place on the line, and lighting it nicely, as in, making it look appetizing, the kids naturally bought more… Is that manipulation, or putting variety, fruits, veggies on equal footing with the enticing packaging of, say, a bag of chips… Just musing…

    • katja

      all great points! Interesting study idea. What about improving the choices and variety in the buffet? This is fascinating stuff. I addressed the language concern in another reply. I know Ellyn doesn’t like using the word “healthy” food… I used to say, “mostly healthy food most of the time” but I’ve stopped… It goes to that food hierarchy thing. How can we talk about food, support good nutrition while dealing with a spectrum of food experiences from those who are food insecure to those functioning at the apex. “healthy” implies judgment to me, but I don’t know other than using the terms “variety” how else to talk about food and nutrition… what are you seeing in the research field?

      • Jess

        Yes, defining “healthy” is tricky– I use it here for lack of a better catch-all term, but you can’t even use the words “healthy” in relation to “food” in a study anymore, because it’s become a meaningless and loaded term (junk food manufacturers and fast food chains love to talk about the “healthy” options in their product lines, or argue that tossing some vitamins into the chocolate-frosted-sugar-bombs cereal makes it “healthy”). Meanwhile, where I live (in the SF Bay area) “healthy” is routinely conflated with other labels like organic, local, unprocessed, etc. In my final proposal, I’ll definitely have to decide upon a more rigorous definition.

        Katja, your point about variety and/or fruits and vegetable consumption is well taken. It would be a way to approach the issue without having to rely on definitions rooted in calories and fat grams. Michael Pollan sometimes annoys me, but he makes a great point about “nutritionism” and the over-focus on calories/fat/protein/carbs as opposed to actual foods. In my research, this is something I constantly struggle with.

        @Caprice: the purpose of my study would actually be to test certain principles of behavioral economics and whether or not they are applicable to food choices. Kids wouldn’t be told what is healthy and what isn’t or even told that the point of the study is to see whether they choose healthier items; kids in the treatment group would just pre-select, and then we would observe the choices they make (and we would aggregate the data anonymously). If changing what kids choose at lunch is a goal of some school districts, it would be interesting if something as low-cost and simple as pre-selection could affect a change.

        @JessiDehl: Agreed, preaching to kids about “the right choices” doesn’t do much and can be harmful. (There is some research showing that advertising food as “healthy” to kids causes them NOT to choose that product.) That’s why I think it’s interesting to find out if simple behavioral techniques not overtly connected to the whole “good food/bad food” message would cause shifts in kids choices. Kind of like division of responsibility and family meals do at home, you know?

  3. jessidehl

    I wonder if some of the parents that said “yes” are any of those “what did you eat today at school” parents. And if the family is poor and the children don’t get anything to eat other than at school, will they account for that in the research? Will they be linking the eating habits with the actual weight and height of the child? I see so much potential for flawed research conclusions that it scares me silly.

    • katja

      I bet their “research” will show that the “fat” kids are eating no more than the “lean” ones, and maybe less, as study after study finds. (This finding however will be buried in one line in the body of the article, while the conclusion is likely to tout the camera as a new breakthrough that *may* help children make better food choices…)

  4. Twistie

    I’ve already brought this up on a couple other blogs, but I do think it’s important to note that a lot of kids are going to use this as a reason to rebel. I know that I was a pretty docile, well-behaved kid, but this would have been an absolute invitation for me to gather up as many friends and compatriots as possible and do everything in our power to pervert the results of this ‘study.’ We would have swapped leftovers, brought bizarre things from home to add to the trays, chosen all foods we hated and piled them up on one, single tray at the end of lunch, and I can’t even imagine what else.

    Add this to the already noted list of reasons why this idea is pure, unadulterated booshwah: resentful children can be wildly creative, perverse, and determined.

    What’s more, both of my parents – including my mother who was on the board of education for more than a decade – would have aided and abetted me in my campaign. Oh, and refused to sign permission slips to have my eating habits monitored. Which means my ideas would have had to be spread to those whose parents did sign. But they would have approved of my efforts on behalf of others, too.

    • katja

      I hope so, but it’s grade school. 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th graders… I still think many developmentally so want to please their grown-ups, particularly a beloved teacher… Maybe in middle school there would be nice rebellion. Maybe I’m wrong…Sounds like you have a great mom!

      • Twistie

        Mom and Dad would have encouraged revolution among the kids, and I wanted to please them more than any teacher I ever had. And I had a few that were pretty awesome.

        And really, all it takes is one good troubemaker to get the ball rolling.

  5. E

    I’m completely horrified by this. I’d like to do something about it, but I can’t think of anything (I don’t live anywhere near San Antonio). Anyone got any ideas of something we (or I) could do?

  6. Caprice

    How can this be legal. It would seem to me that there should be lawsuits and of course there would be if the children involved were from more affluent families. This is, to me, an absolute invasion of privacy not to mention involving these children in a quasi-scientific “study” with no permission given by the families of the children involved.

    • katja

      I read another article that stated that the parents need to give permission, and supposedly 90% did… I wonder what kind of a process it was, was there IRB approval? (When you do rigorous, real study, you need the Human subjects board approval, it’s a major process, major hassle, and I doubt they had to do this, or I imagine it would not have been approved, then again, some of the studies done on kids around food that HAVE gotten approval are pretty shocking too…)

      • Anne

        I’d be willing to bet that a healthy dose of good old parent guilt was involved in people agreeing to this. I’m sure when it was presented, there was an underlying tone of “Well, if you were a good parent, why would you disagree? Don’t you care about your children??” I don’t think we’re ever too old for peer pressure. Comments on articles about stuff like this are always chock full of Holier Than Thou parents supporting the idea and how they don’t have a TV or let their kids play video games or take their kids to McDonald’s and thus are all athletic wunderkinds and if only all the (unspoken) stupid, bad (/unspoken) parents would do the same…

        • E

          I could also see it being a case of “here, just sign this” and the parents thinking it was just a generic permission slip. If they were pretty casual in the way they presented it, I could see it slipping past busy parent eyes without much thought.

        • katja

          yup. There is a heavy theme of this in the public health discourse around this issue. The whole “folks born on third base who think they hit a triple” phenom…

          • Monita

            The article I read said that most parents consented, and those that didn’t consent “probably didn’t understand.” Really? If I lived there, I would not have consented, because I think I understand all too well. And whoever also said that it is an invasion of privacy was spot on!

          • katja

            It is amazing how blind they are to any possible harm…

  7. Anne

    As Heather said above, the potential shame factor on this is frightening. Kids are under so much pressure as it is to conform, fit in, go with the flow – now we’re going to spy on what they eat?

    And at the risk of getting overly dramatic, what of the child who comes from an abusive home, where they have to walk the tightrope of “Will this earn me a beating?” every day as it is. Now they have the added fear of a report home about “bad eating habits”

    • katja

      I’m not sure we can be overly dramatic. Kids alas sometimes experience severe trauma and neglect around food in the home. Heaping more shame on from school won’t help.

  8. Heather

    I’m also shocked that this study passed review. It is so invasive, and seems to have so much potential to cause shame, disordered eating, or kids going hungry because they can’t ‘fill up’ at what could be their only guaranteed meal of the day.

  9. Bobbini

    No good will come from this. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 67.4% of kids in Bexar County (where San Antonio is located) are eligible to receive free or reduced lunches.

    Public health in the U.S. has a great history of population-level successes–fluoridated water, immunizations required for school enrollment–things that are hard to opt-out of. But when they try to implement individual or family-level solutions, they go off the rails.

    If childhood obesity truly is a public health problem, then we need population-level solutions to solve it. Expand and improve the quality of food provided through the federal school lunch program. Raise the standards for quality–freshness, nutritional content, variety–of all school lunches, rather than ratting out the kids who may be getting an extra helping of instant mashed potatoes.

  10. Gretchen

    That is truly horrendous. And will probably be held up as an exemplary program. Oh dear God.

  11. Becky Henry

    How’s your blood pressure Katja? I hope you are commenting on the articles about this in the publications in which they were printed. Your commentary needs to be heard far and wide.

    When I see media requests for people to respond to this I’m sending them your way. Be ready.
    Becky Henry

    • katja

      i am torn on this. Every one makes you register… It’s a pain in the butt… I can’t fight every fight…