To improve student health and enhance parent understanding, the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District (ISD) in Carrollton, Texas, has put $95,000 into developing a program to give parents, students, and other community stakeholders a new way to learn about the foods offered in its schools: a virtual cafeteria.

The Flash-enabled program, available to all stakeholders through the district’s web site, allows parents and students to play what amounts to a nutrition orientation game–with a bit of low-level arithmetic instruction offered as gravy.

In the virtual cafeteria, Cathy, an animated cafeteria worker, stands behind the daily menu items with a static, maternal smile on her face. With the sound of a busy cafeteria buzzing in the background, Cathy’s talking word bubbles offer comments such as “Good job! It looks like you know where to find vitamin A and vitamin C” when users place the soup and salad option on their lunch trays.

“We have had comments that Cathy doesn’t say anything about bad food choices,” said Rachelle Fowler, director of student nutrition for Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD. “But there really are no bad choices; it’s the combination in which the foods are consumed that is good or bad.”

Parents and students can evaluate the school breakfast and lunch menus for the whole month for any school in the district.

Users place virtual food items on their trays with the mouse. A spreadsheet-like display at the bottom of the frame adds up the nutritional content of the breakfast or lunch as it progresses, taking into account each food item’s caloric value, total fat content, sodium, vitamin C, carbohydrates, and so on. The cost of each item is displayed to the left of the screen, and the total is calculated as items are added to the tray, so parents can give their children exact change to take to school to further discourage the consumption of unnecessary calories.

Cathy, the animated cafeteria worker from Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District, displays some of the district’s food choices to help students learn about what they are eating. (Photo courtesy of WinningHabits)

The overall nutritional value of each food item placed on the tray also is evaluated in terms of a Texas Education Agency health program called CATCH, or Coordinated Approach to Child Health. CATCH is a statewide program “designed to promote physical activity, healthy food choices, and prevent tobacco use in elementary school-aged children.”

“We were really just looking for a fun, interactive way to educate students about the nutritional content of the food we serve in the cafeteria,” said Fowler.

“Even if we had the capability to force healthy choices on students in school, they’re not always going to be in school,” Fowler said. “We need to enable students to make healthy choices, and we need the parent-partner involved.”

According to the American Obesity Association (AOA), about 30 percent of children ages six to nine are overweight. Half of those, or 15 percent, are considered obese. Overweight and obese children suffer from an increased disposition to such conditions as asthma, type-2 diabetes, hypertension, orthopedic complications, sleep apnea, and psychological effects and social stigma, the AOA says.

With the average weight of students increasing steadily over the past several years, Fowler said her district also has seen an increase in the number of students with special dietary needs.

“With the so-called ‘obesity epidemic,’ we’re seeing a lot more diabetic students,” Fowler said. “That’s another way this tool can be used. This tool is a great way for students to better plan their diets. Parents can sit down with their children and plan their diets for the next day with this tool.”

She added: “The virtual cafeteria takes the cafeteria home to the parents. Many parents are busy during the day; they don’t have the time to have lunch with their kids. [With the virtual cafeteria], they can sit down with their children and help guide them in making choices about their diet.”

The virtual cafeteria incorporates the CATCH program component called “Eat Smart.” Foods are divided into “go,” “slow,” and “whoa” categories.

“Go” foods include fruits, vegetables, and foods that are healthy and full of vitamins and nutrients. “Go” foods contain the lowest amount of fat and can be eaten more often than “slow” or “whoa” foods.

“Slow” foods are higher in fat than “go” foods, but lower than “whoa” foods. “Slow” foods should be eaten less often than “go” foods, but more often than “whoa” foods.

“Whoa” foods contain the highest fat contents. “Whoa” foods are to be eaten sparingly.

A clock on the wall behind Cathy indicates the status of the food in terms of the CATCH system. When carrots are placed on the tray, the face on the clock disappears and is replaced with a green “go.” When potato chips are dragged over, a red “whoa” appears.

Morgan Downey, president of the AOA, said he believes education is the key to treating children with weight problems and promoting healthy eating habits for all. Nutritional programs are of great value in schools, he added, given a recent history of budget cuts in the area of health education.

“Anything like [the Carrolton-Farmers Branch virtual cafeteria] that gets out [nutritional] information is helpful,” Downey said.

The school district’s virtual cafeteria was developed by Winning Habits Inc., a company that provides wellness solutions to large populations, usually corporations, public entities, and school districts that are concerned with the health of the population they are managing, whether employees or students.

“It’s all about making healthy choices,” said David Michel, founder of the company. “The answer to healthy nutrition in schools is not to take away bad choices, but to steer students toward making good choices.”

He added: “The virtual cafeteria is really groundbreaking for us. We’re placing the educational resource in the classroom for the kids, and parents can get online and help in planning [student] meals. The program is all data-driven; users can get the nutritional value themselves.”

Meta Agnew, the parent of a student at Charlie McKamy Elementary, said that, although her high school-aged sons would rather choose their lunch items themselves, she and her fifth-grade daughter often visit the virtual cafeteria.

“My daughter is a picky eater anyway,” said Agnew. “Using the virtual cafeteria makes her feel more in control. Sometimes I can help her make better choices. We’re using it to learn about counting calories, fat, and putting together a balanced diet.”

But it’s unwise to read too much into early positive responses to a program such as the virtual cafeteria, Downey warned.

“Sometimes the people who use such programs are the people who need them least,” Downey said. “They read nutritional information. They’re health conscious; they’re already on board. The others need to be led to it.”

Still, all parties involved say the program has been well received by parents–and they’re excited about the future of the virtual cafeteria.

“The enhancement ideas just keep coming,” said Fowler. “One gentleman called and wanted to have the option of clicking on a food item and having a pop-up box come up and give the ingredients for that item.”

Winning Habits, meanwhile, is betting that the virtual cafeteria will be a bankable success for its business.

“We’ve built the virtual cafeteria in such a way that it’s reproducible for other districts,” said the company’s Michel. “We’re happy to license it to them as well.”


Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District

Virtual Cafeteria

American Obesity Association

Coordinated Approach to Child Health (CATCH)

Winning Habits Inc.