There was an article today in the Bay Citizen (taken from a Reuters news report) about a program placing surveillance cameras in San Antonio public schools to document what students choose in the cafeteria lunch line and what they throw away. My first reaction was outrage at the invasion of privacy. Then, when I considered the scientific data that could be obtained from the setup, I became intrigued. They will not only be able to document what is eaten and what is thrown away, but they will be able to connect this information with individual students and compare it with socioeconomic data. Thus, they will be able to identify any potential correlations between food choices and the socioeconomic backgrounds of students, as well as food preferences that could be used to plan healthier alternatives.
Then I got creeped out again. Why does the San Antonio school system need to spend $2 million on this experiment? (Granted, the money came from a federal grant, so it would be more accurate to ask why the feds need to spend this kind of dough). However, we already know the difference between healthy and unhealthy foods, so why not use that money to help reconfigure the food services of the district to provide healthier foods? Sure, it could be argued that the adults don’t really know what this particular population of kids really wants to eat, so maybe their healthy choices would just end up in the waste bin anyway. But that brings up several other issues. If San Antonio starts producing healthy facsimiles of the foods their students enjoy, maybe their students will stop enjoying them and will toss them, too. A baked potato chip devoid of salt and fat is hardly worth the trouble to chew. Furthermore, the “healthy” choices might end up being healthy only in name, as is often the case, remaining mass produced industrial swill.
There is also the bigger question of whether or not school meals can really mitigate all the other factors that contribute to obesity. People develop their food preferences at a young age and have those preferences reinforced at home and in their communities. What can the schools do to change eating and shopping habits at home? Poor families are still limited in terms of what they can afford to buy to eat and children will continue to eat what gives them comfort and familiarity outside of school so long as it is available or encouraged. Furthermore, overworked, stressed out families have less time and energy to cook wholesome meals at home. After a ten-hour day of being yelled at by 3 different bosses, Hack in the Sack’s promise of a no cooking, no clean-up, low cost dinner, may seem like perfection.
There are other issues, too, like the lack of funding and time provided for exercise and the further encroachment on PE classes by the demands of NCLB. If we really want to make a difference in children’s health, then we should have mandatory physical exercise daily for students, whether that comes in the form of traditional PE classes, or dance, yoga, or other alternatives.