So Michel Foucault and Jeremy Bentham walk into an elementary school cafeteria*

By | May 12, 2011

A top-down view of a school lunch tray, featuring milk, a burger with pickles, crinkle-cut fries, a Rice Krispies treat, lettuce and tomato.

Crinkle-cut fries: the special touch that makes it clear your meal has come from a school cafeteria.

Five elementary schools in San Antonio are embarking on a “research project” which amounts to extensive surveillance and measurement of students’ lunchtime eating habits.

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

Here’s how it works: Each lunch tray gets a bar code sticker to identify a student. After the children load up their plates down the line — cole slaw or green beans? french fries or fruit? — a camera above the cashier takes a picture of each tray.

When lunch is over and the plates are returned to the kitchen, another camera takes a snapshot of what’s 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.

Damn, this is one aspect of our dystopian future that Blade Runner failed to anticipate. I consider myself a pretty jaded and cynical person on these matters, but this project has left me gobsmacked in a way I haven’t been for quite awhile. It’s partly because I grew up as a continuously dieting child, feeling as though every morsel I put in my mouth was always being scruntinzed and assessed—a belief that led to some significant disordered eating, and one that I still have occasional trouble shaking, even in my mid-30s. But it’s also because there are inherent psychological effects to constant surveillance, and as the project leader says above: “The kids know they’re being monitored.”

Back in 1795, a philosopher named Jeremy Bentham conceived of a new design for prisons, one that was meant to enforce order by creating a space in which every inmate could be watched at all times, while the watcher could not be clearly seen. He called it the Panopticon. In this environment, the possibility of being watched was always present, and this served as an invisible disciplinary influence. The building was circular, with a guard tower in the center, and the cells ringing the outside edge, facing inward. The fact that every cell could hypothetically be seen at all times meant that every prisoner lived under an omniscient eye.

A couple hundred years later, French poststructualist theorist Michel Foucault would seize on the Panopticon in Discipline and Punish as a metaphor for society’s need to produce “docile bodies” to be functional workers and soldiers. Culture, according to Foucault, accomplishes this using disciplinary systems similar to the Panopticon, in which each body may be observed and assessed at any time. This has a controlling and normalizing effect, in which bodies are encouraged to meet expected standards at all times. Think CCTV systems, or Big Brother. If one is never sure if one is being watched, it makes one less likely to openly transgress the rules.

I’m also inclined to argue that this arrangement ultimately results not only in the self-policing of one’s own behavior, but in a broader social system that expects and rewards the individual policing of others’ bodies and behaviors. Those who subvert social norms are, ostensibly, people who have forgotten that they can be seen, publicly, at any time. Therefore, when they transgress social norms—by expressing physical affection for a person not visibly coded as the opposite sex, for example, or by being fat and rejecting social and bodily invisibility—they need to be reminded of this omniscient social gaze, and in the absence of institutional discipline, must be punished so they do not transgress again. This is the mechanism by which a dude who sees me in a vividly-colored dress, walking alone as though I either don’t know or don’t care that I am defying bodily norms, feels compelled to scream “UGLY FAT BITCH” at me. He is applying social discipline and teaching me a lesson: Everyone can see you, and your body and/or behavior are unacceptable.

To some extent, the San Antonio experiment is a natural extension of this omniscient, unequal gaze. It doesn’t matter that the children will not be disciplined by the school for their choices; supervision of any kind carries with it the implication of punishment, and children know this as well as any group of people. This is how we have defined what it means to be watched, socially and culturally. When we are watched, we know there is a particular “correct” behavior to which we are expected to adhere, and to do otherwise is to risk punishment. It is disingenuous to suggest that being “subtle” about the surveillance will somehow counteract the students’ awareness that they are being observed. Subtlety is actually likely to make the students more conscious of their observation—as in the Panopticon, the reality of a watcher who can also be observed is a less powerful impetus to discipline than the possibility of a watcher who is invisible.

The fact that the results are shared with the children’s parents makes this doubly watchful: the children will know that not only is their school keeping track of what they eat, but their parents will know as well, while their parents will know that the school is watching their child’s food intake, and may feel inclined to discipline or otherwise instruct their kid to choose appropriate foods for the sake of appearances. This reaction will vary dramatically amongst parents, but the possibility is there, and possibility is what all this omniscient gazing is all about.

The project is explicitly focused on schools in poor and minority areas, as these groups are considered to be at higher risk of both the fat and the diabetes.

Researchers warn that obesity is not always the result of children eating too many calories. A previous study by [the same nonprofit center running the surveillance project] 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. [Emphasis added]

It all has a disturbing guinea-pig aspect to it, doesn’t it? Obviously these are scientists who are confused by how a lower calorie intake could still result in obesity. But clearly it must have something to do with their eating habits! We simply aren’t scrutinizing them closely enough! Let’s scrutinize them really really closely!

I have no idea if this experience will have any serious long-term consequences for the kids in question, at least not any that they wouldn’t already face by virtue of growing up and living in our food- and weight-obsessed culture. My fear is that said kids will develop an overly sensitive consciousness of their eating habits, which can develop into disordered eating patterns with a terrible quickness, but I don’t know if that will happen, and it’s impossible to guess without interviewing the students involved after the fact.

What shocks me about this experiment is not that is seems so outrageous, but that it seems so unsurprising. Our preoccupation with food has eclipsed our ability to see the alleged Obesity Horror from any other perspective. It must be something we’re eating; ergo, it must be an individual problem caused by individual behavior, accountable to individuals. But what if it’s not? Is that a possibility we can even grasp? Is there a return on this investment big enough to justify the hypothetical cost to the social and psychological development of the kids being watched? I just don’t believe that knowing the precise measurements of a child’s half-eaten pile of mashed potatoes is going to bring us any answers. It certainly won’t bring us any solutions.

* Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

A big fat tip ‘o the hat to Lisa for emailing me the link to this article!


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