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Texas Schools Targeting Lunch Trays To Count Calories

May 12, 2011

Health officials unveiled a $2 million research project on Wednesday that will photograph students’ lunch trays at five San Antonio elementary schoolsbefore they sit down to eat and later take a snapshot of the leftovers.

A computer program analyzes the photos to identify each piece of food on the plate and calculates the number of calories each student has eaten.

The project is the first of its kind in the nation.  The cameras point only toward the trays and do not photograph the students.  Researchers say 90 percent of parents gave permission to record every morsel of food their child eats.

“We’re trying to be as passive as possible. The kids know they’re being monitored,” Dr. Roger Echon, who works for the San Antonio-based Social & Health Research Center, and who is building the food-recognition program, said in a statement quoted by the Associated Press.

Every lunch tray will have a bar code sticker to identify a student. Once the children load up their plates down the line, a camera above the cashier takes a picture of each tray.

Once lunch is over, another camera takes a snapshot of what is left.  Echon’s program then analyzes the before and after photos to calculate calories consumed and the values of 128 other nutrients.

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. 

Echon is developing the program and expects to spend the first year of the four-year grant fine-tuning the equipment. 

Echon has learned that mashed potatoes served on some campuses are lumpier than those served on others.  The program accounts for consistencies and texture.

The database already includes 7,500 different varieties of food.

Echon said he had to start his experiment from scratch because there were no other similar models to build on.

He said the high-tech process was necessary because asking young children to remember and record what they ate was unlikely to be accurate.

A previous study found that 44 percent of children consumed calories below their required daily amount, but nearly a third were obese.

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