"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.
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.
The eye-in-the-sky research comes just as the USDA is considering new meal standards that would require more green and orange vegetables and more whole grains in school meals--the kind of things kids typically refuse to eat.
Finally, the USDA has issued a new rule that could result in more locally-grown foods appearing in school meal programs.
The rule, part of the child nutrition re-authorization Congress passed in December, allows schools to give preference to local providers when they bid on school food contracts.
Encouraging more local produce in schools could spur local agriculture and put fresher foods on kids' plates--or so the theory goes. Alice Waters, whose "Edible Schoolyard" has influence school garden programs around the country, says local produce won't do much if kids don't eat it (and don't we know it.) What kids need, she says, its lots more education around healthier eating habits.
"We should certainly try to improve diets by make school lunches more nutritious and by getting the vending machines out of the hallways," Waters said. "But we can't be sure that kids are even eating — let alone understanding — what nourishment is all about. Kids are wary of unfamiliar foods, besides they can always buy packaged junk before and after school."
Waters says schools need to offer credit for edible education the way they do for phys ed, science and math. They need mandatory lunch programs, like the one in Chicago that grabbed headlines a few weeks ago. The more kids know about food and the more they have a hand in growing or preparing or serving it, the more likely they are to eat it, she says.