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USDA plays Big Brother to San Antonio students to curb obesity




If, like most parents, you’re concerned for your school-aged child’s health and well-being, be encouraged: this year, United States Department of Agriculture spent $2 million in research money to find the culprit in America's childhood-obesity epidemic. And for some San Antonio parents, there’s bad news: most likely, your kid’s to blame.

Thanks to the USDA, five schools in Bexar County, including W.W. White Elementary, have been outfitted with a first-of-it’s-kind surveillance system in which every morsel of food on plates in the cafeteria is being photographed, tracked, recorded, and synthesized to determine how much food your kid shoveled into his mouth today? Each child is assigned a bar code so that video cameras will be able to identify the respective student and his lunch plate, both before eating and afterward. The surveillance system is very sophisticated, even calculating the calorie content, value of 128 potential nutrients, and the shape, size, and density of food on trays. The researchers’ aim is to find correlation between the amount and kind of food each child eats and the rates of juvenile obesity for the area (33 percent for Bexar). Collected data will also be relayed back to parents of each child.

Surveillance cameras are about the size of a pocket flashlight, and the project’s directors assure parents that no pictures of children will be taken — it’s all about the food. In fact, about 90 percent of parents have been compliant in approving the cameras for use, says W.W. White Elementary School Principal Mark Davis. He believes the remaining 10 percent of parents who withheld consent for the project simply don't understand the intent, perhaps thinking it would limit what their child would be able to have access to eat at school. "Nothing in the program says they can't have something. It just says we're tracking what it is," he said.

This ingenious undertaking by the United States government redirects blame for both the kind of food and the amount of food students are given while at school. In putting the onus on the child for the food choices that he/she makes in the cafeteria line, the government-run school lunch program deflects responsibility for the sub-par, highly processed, artificial, chemical-ized food served to students (think past-due meat and cheese, milk from rBGH-injected cows with estrogen levels so high it is theorized to induce early puberty in humans, and fruits and vegetables sprayed with pesticides known to cause cancer and neurological damage). Because, the implication goes, even first- and second-graders should be able to correctly identify low-calorie from calorie-dense, right?

Let’s face it -- there would be no need to track calories, portions, and nutrition content if, say, the foods served to children in the school lunch line were actually healthy. Instead of allotting the $2 million dollars to this absurd research project, it could have instead been put towards a solution-driven cause, like supporting communities in utilizing their local fresh, whole meats and produce (healthy both for the child and the local economy). Unfortunately, the dollars are being spent to illustrate what we already know: when children are disengaged from what is in their food and where their food comes from, and when given the opportunity, they will choose sugary, salty, starchy, calorie-dense meals.

In fact, some cities in 48 states have instituted thriving school farm-to-table programs that have successfully increased the amounts of unprocessed fruits and vegetables children eat while in the cafeteria. Administrators at Greenview Upper Elementary School in South Euclid, Ohio, found that when kids were able to meet and speak with the local farmer, were more likely to eat vegetables (both familiar and unfamiliar) that he’d grown. Additionally, as of December 2010, President Obama signed into law the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which expands federal funds for school lunches and designates $40 million to farm-to-school initiatives. These are exactly the kind of programs and funds that would be most beneficial to, say, a community with a 33 percent childhood obesity rate and diabetes statistics not too far behind. Unfortunately, initiation isn’t quite so simple and there are red-tape legalities; these programs require collaboration and communication between state agencies, non-profits, and local volunteers (not so easy to coordinate).

This surveillance project could also cause unintended negative effects on students. Because students are aware that they are being monitored, they could become self-conscious and engage in dysfunctional eating patterns, like purposefully eating less (at worst, nothing at all and skipping lunch entirely), or eating only certain foods as to not be reprimanded or embarrassed once dietary reports are sent home.  Because children are keenly aware of the attitudes of those in authority over them, there are many questions as to just how students may try to please the project’s researchers, perhaps throwing off any real data.

In the case of these Bexar County schools, under the direction of the USDA, the band-aid approach wins out over proactive solutions, even on an issue as sensitive and timely as our children’s health. The messages this surveillance research project sends are: government-provided processed lunches are here to stay, and if only students would reduce their portions -- choose the water and fruit cup over the chocolate milk, pizza, and mashed potatoes -- the obesity epidemic would surely be snuffed out; the food being served to students does not need examination, rather, the student and family needs to accept personal responsibility. And above all, when it comes to health, deflect deflect deflect.


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Liz Schau is a Certified Holistic Health Counselor who specializes in nutritional changes for women with thyroid disease, food allergies, immune system and digestive health concerns. You can find her at

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