Calorie Cam - Will Before and After Shots Save School Lunch?

When I saw this article from NBC on the Texas schools' USDA grant-funded initiative- Texas Schools Install "Calorie Cams" -  to snap photos of kids' school lunch trays at checkout, then again at disposal. This will give us a picture of what kids choose and what they discard. The first comment I saw on it is from a parent alarmed that parents will be blamed if kids make poor choices. I had different ideas immediately, many of them. Here are four ideas from a non-parent who is deeply concerned about the health of the next generation.

A) Integrate - Why not require all school lunch plates to use color-coded plates that look like the new MyPlate graphic? Or lunch trays to be printed with this graphic?

School lunch lines could be color-grouped so kids would be guided to choose items that matched the colors on the plate. Why not? Why not send kids home with a placemat so they can teach their family how to make better food choices? Science could be taught (what makes a cherry red? what is an antioxidant? phytonutrient?); math: how to measure grains. Geography: where does quinoa come from? Cooking: learn a recipe using farro? If fish is on the menu, where is it from? How healthy is the fishery from which it came? What type of catch method was used? Did it damage the environment? The milk carton might provide a lesson in recycling or green packaging. The possibilities are endless.

B) Take responsibility for our kids' health - I immediately recalled a radio podcast I heard where a school cafeteria chief was asked about how he chooses the foods to serve in his cafeteria. His answer, offered with a slight bit of embarrassment, was that he must choose what is most popular with the kids because his budget is tied to sales. Therefore, if he padded his menu with pizza, french fries, chips and sodas, the kids ate more crap and his budget grew. Of course, so does childhood diabetes and obesity. If this policy is not wrong-headed I don't know what is. Talk about letting the inmates run the asylum. It's hard to blame the guy, really. The problem starts much higher than the level at which he is making budget choices. If you are a parent of a school-aged child, do you know what is being served at school lunch? Does your school principal and superintendent know that you care? What choices are being made at a policy level that directly affect your child's health?

C) Think creatively about the uses of technology - If these snapshots (we are so reduced to a "Before" and "After" mentality!) could be used wisely, we could see cafeterias experimenting with placement of fruit. Placement and display of healthy food options has been shown to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables children choose.

By moving fruit from stainless steel trays to basket lit by table lamps, the Cornell Food and Brand Lab saw a 58% increase in fresh fruit sales at upstate New York schools. In the same study, researchers found a 250-300% increase in consumption of salad bar items when they were moved to a prominent, high-traffic area. Just by adding the option of a salad bar to cafeterias, a UCLA study saw students’ fruit and vegetable consumption nearly double. Ode Magazine: Healthy Food in Schools.

Demonstrate through the use of these before and after cams how school lunch lines' design and layout can affect healthy choices. THEN MAKE THE CHANGES, support the budget choices that support healthier options.

D) Use QR Codes and track and trace technology -  Engage middle school and high school students in learning about food through the use of technology which is already in many hands. QR codes that enable smart phones to load a website showing information about the food, about the producer or grower.  Imagine if this QR code could show kids who grew the fruit they're offered? What was sprayed on it or not, and why? Where did that beef come from? A nice green pasture in Vermont or disease-filled feedlot? Hm...Take a look at how Chef Jose Duarte is using QR codes and Track and Trace to show diners where there fish came from. WCVB Boston Chronicle introduces how Duarte uses the technology here.

QR codes, like bar codes, can be scanned to show comparative prices for smart shopping (look at the back of your last bottle of shampoo, you may be surprised how many products already carry these codes!), and is increasingly being used for other purposes. I was at a wine tasting and the representative showed a QR code on the back label of his wine. I scanned it and immediately those of us at the table could see the vineyard from which it came, we could learn about the harvest, the season that produced that vintage, we could "meet" the winemakers, and we were only one click away from all this info.