Nine-year-old Aaliyah Haley went through the lunch line at W.W. White Elementary with cheesy enchiladas, Spanish rice, fat-free chocolate milk, and an apple. Two cameras, one pointed directly down and another about tray-level, photographed her food before she sat down to eat.
“I liked it. It’s good food that was good for me,” Haley said.
Just how healthy it was, researchers don’t know yet. Echon is still developing the program and expects to spend the first year of the four-year grant fine-tuning the software and equipment. By the 2012-13 school year, the Social Health & Research Center plans to have a prototype in place.
Echon already has made some changes to the project. He learned that mashed potatoes served on some campuses are lumpier than those served on others. The program now accounts for consistencies and texture.
The database so far includes about 7,500 different varieties of food. Echon said he started from scratch because there was no other food-recognition software to build upon. He insisted on creating technology to record meals, because asking 8-year-olds to remember what they ate and write it down is seldom accurate.
Researches selected poor, minority campuses where obesity rates and diabetes risk are higher. Among those is White Elementary, which is just off a busy interstate highway on the city’s poor east side, on a street dotted with fast-food restaurants and taquerias.
In Bexar County, where the five pilot schools are located, 33 percent of children living in poverty are obese.
Researchers warn that obesity is not always the result of children eating too many calories. A previous study by the nonprofit center reported that 44 percent of children studied consumed calories below daily minimum requirements, but nearly one-third were still obese. Seven percent screened positive for type 2 diabetes.
Mark Davis, the school’s principal, said getting consent from parents hasn’t been a problem. He suspects the small number of parents who withhold consent don’t understand the project, perhaps thinking it limits what their child can eat at school.
“Nothing in the program says they can’t have something,” Davis said. “It just says we’re tracking what it is.”