Enough is enough, already, with the technological advances. Let me rephrase that: Enough with the technological advances that make us lazy and blunt our mental acuity. Hear me out on this one before you throw your iPad at me. Gadgets that make life more efficient or safer or greener can be things of wonder. But, there are times when a step forward in technology means a step backward in our understanding of how things work.And when this happens, there’s no benefit for anyone.

Say, “Cheese!”
A group of five grade schools in San Antonio, TX received $2 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to pioneer an elaborate system that aims to teach families about healthy food choices. Every day, students use their personal barcoded cafeteria lunch trays to hold food of their own choosing. Before digging in, the children’s trays are scanned with a pocket-sized camera. After mealtimes, the trays are re-scanned to record photos of what was left on their plates.
The pictures are automatically analyzed with special software that tracks how many calories and which nutrients the children ate, and the data are transmitted to their parents. The hope is that once parents see the poor food choices their children are making at school, it will encourage them to make better decisions about nutrition at home. Or, it will prove that families are doing a good job teaching children about good meal choices.

Superfluous Sophistication
When I read this story, my first thought was that this is high-priced technology gone awry. Do we really need such an overly complicated and expensive system to convince kids to put down the French fries? What ever happened to good old-fashioned lessons in nutrition?

Personally, I’d rather see a $2-million grant spent on having a school nutritionist meet with students and parents to discuss the food groups, healthy recipes and the benefits of important nutrients to the body. Why? Because without this important working knowledge, a statement like, “Your child ate 15 grams of saturated fat at lunch today” is meaningless. If you don’t understand what a saturated fat is versus a polyunsaturated fat (and how they affect one’s cholesterol), for instance, a number can do little good on its own. It may even do harm (e.g., “15 grams isn’t bad! It was only a small cheesesteak”).

This system is being investigated at a time when students and parents are increasingly drawn to technology. Kids love smart phones and e-books, so why not digitalize food education, too? Such a numerical system can be a tool in achieving good health, but it can’t be the main event. It’s even more important to have a deep-seated understanding of nutrition that comes as second-nature—to pick carrots over cookies most times. This kind of instinct must be built with a foundation of education.

To me, this story emphasizes the fact that school lunchrooms should not be a place where food is reduced to simply cut-and-dry numbers. Rather, school cafeterias should be educational labs of sorts where students can experiment with their nutritional knowledge and put good instincts to the test. By understanding what are good staples (and which are “sometimes foods”), kids stand a chance at making good food choices throughout life. WF

Kaylynn Chiarello-Ebner
Editor/Associate Publisher

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, July 2011