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!


Natalie L. on May 12, 2011 at 12:26 pm.

That’s horrifying. The first thing I thought was, “What a great tool for abusive parents! They can now abuse their children for eating too much or too little at school! Or for not eating the ‘right’ things!” You know, in addition to all the other made up excuses they have for abusing their kids.


K. Cox on May 12, 2011 at 12:28 pm.

O_o Holy shit. When I read the bit about the barcodes and images I thought, “Interesting, they’re doing some serious tracking on what actually gets eaten / used, that should assist with resource allocation / purchasing decisions / recipe development.” But then came the mailing it to their parents bit, and… wow. This whole thing is fucking creepy.


Alice on May 12, 2011 at 6:29 pm.

Exactly – the initlal read for me was all about seeing what menu items get eaten, what gets tossed on days when it’s colder or hotter, etc. Well and good. But the linking of data with each kid – holy mother of god, this is repulsive.


jsb16 on May 25, 2011 at 7:50 pm.

Same here. Closely monitoring what kids actually eat for research purposes is one thing, but legitimate medical/social research doesn’t generally mail the results to anyone in mid-study…


JonelB on May 12, 2011 at 12:42 pm.

Ironically to avoid this sort of thing while in school I never ate there, and simple read a book during lunchtime.

Also, Lesley! Imagine if it’s something wrong
With our culture?! What would we do then Lesley?! No…no…it must be the individuals doing something wrong, clearly plus-size people did not exist until now….


To-Fu on May 12, 2011 at 12:50 pm.

One might call it… the Spamopticon. BAH HA HA.

Seriously, though–this is super creepy. 1984 much? Gad.


Thornacious on May 12, 2011 at 12:57 pm.

With everything else that’s wrong with this plan, I honestly don’t think they’re going to get the kind of results that would truly be useful (if such information would be useful, which I highly doubt).

I don’t know about TX, but in my area, lunch and recess have been getting pared down more and more over the years, and schools – realizing that you can’t tell little kids to sit still for six hours in a row without giving them a chance to run off some energy along the way – wind up opting to cut back the amount of time available for lunch in order to shift an extra five minutes into recess.

So at my kids’ school, they get 20 minutes for lunch. And not, they get to sit down for 20 minutes. Twenty minutes including getting their lunches, sitting down (tables are assigned by class), eating, discarding garbage/leftovers and putting away trays/lunch boxes, and lining up for recess.

Under those conditions, OF COURSE kids will opt to eat their “desserts” first, and otherwise focus on foods which are “preferred” and/or easier to eat, over foods that are less calorie-dense and take more time to eat.

I think, as adults, it’s easy to think, “Oh, come on, 20 minutes isn’t that bad.” But it’s rarely asked of us, either. This past winter I had a seasonal job that, for some shifts, only offered a 20-minute break for lunch. During that time I was to get to the cafeteria, procure food, eat, get things put away, make a bathroom stop if needed, and get back to my desk.

I learned that buying food at the little cafeteria was absolutely useless. Admittedly, I am a slow eater, but still – by the time you chose what you wanted, and stood in line to pay for it, you’d lost 3-8 minutes. One day, my well-meaning hubby packed me a sandwich and a thermos of soup. That night, I told him that soup takes too long to eat. From that point on, I stuck with sandwiches and string cheese. Even chips and crackers were too slow to eat during that 20 minute lunch.

So, even IF the rest of this program weren’t garbage (though it totally is), the people setting it up are just not going to get useful information, based on the lunchtime conditions that are common at many schools.

(Whew! Sorry for my rant!)


Jennie C on May 12, 2011 at 2:21 pm.

The 20 minute lunch was a practice at my kids’ grade school as well. Since they are slow eaters they never managed to finish their lunch and ended up hungry at the end of the day. This practice seems to encourage unhealthy eating habits which seems odd considering our fat obsession. Just shows that health really isn’t what society is concerned about here.


Lesley on May 12, 2011 at 2:28 pm.

When I was in the third grade, my school was a little overcrowded, so my “lunch” happened at 10:15 in the morning. I’d get home and be STARVING and my father was just bewildered by it, you know, “How can you possibly be hungry? It’s 3pm!” It was halfway through the year when he found out how early we went to lunch, and he felt terrible for giving me a hard time.

And this was over twenty-something years ago. I can’t imagine how bizarre school lunches have become since.


tigi on May 12, 2011 at 2:58 pm.

Not to mention the fact that, left to their own devices, kids can be the slowest damn eaters on EARTH. I’ve eaten lunch with my nearly-3yo niece before. It takes her twenty minutes to eat a pickle. And I’ve volunteered in schools where students only have that 20-minute space of time to both eat AND get their one recess of the day (i kid you not). So it comes down to eating a full lunch or getting some of their excess energy out. And they go to their next class and can’t focus because half of them are starving and half of them are still wound up.


RachelB on May 12, 2011 at 6:01 pm.

That was me as a kid, every day of elementary school: do you want to eat lunch, or do you want to go outside and play with your friends? There was no time to do both. And by the time 3 p.m. rolled around, I would have cheerfully eaten my own arm.


Christine on May 12, 2011 at 1:53 pm.

I don’t know what the researchers hope to find from this, but it seems fairly pointless to run any studies when the children know that they are being monitored; especially if the children know that as a result of the monitoring their parents will also know what they’re eating.

Frankly, it seems just as easy to give each child ALL of the choices on their tray (fries/carrot sticks, pudding/apple, and a main entree, what have you) and then have the kids return the tray and from there you can see what they ate, didn’t eat, etc. down the line. Then just label each child’s tray 1-however many. BUT you can’t run any research when the kids know they’re being monitored, unless you want to see how kids will react to the knowledge that they’re being monitored. UGH.


E on May 12, 2011 at 2:01 pm.

I’m outraged! I want to do something about it, but don’t know what I could do. And I guarantee that this will make at least one child’s life a lot more stressful than it already would be, because mine was bad (food-wise), and the added level of surveillance would have added an extra level of tension.


Olivia on May 12, 2011 at 3:06 pm.

There are at least 2 glaring problems with this study.
First, which you allude to and has been known by animal behaviorists for a very long time, whenever an animal is being observed its behaviour changes. This includes all animals. So their research project is crap. The kids will not respond in the way they would if they weren’t being watched. Any data they get will be essentially useless .
Second, and this is the most disturbing; low socioeconomic schools were intentionally chosen. It is not uncommon that the only food these kids get all day long is from school. This problem is so widespread and so well-documented, that almost all school districts have summer lunch programs so that kids don’t STARVE TO DEATH during the summer. I have seen kids cry at the thought of an upcoming weekend because they know they are going to be so damn hungry. What kind of sick individuals think that there is anything to be gained from tormenting these students? And the poor parents, I can’t imagine what the pressure must be like on them to conform and have their children conform. Schools are supposed to protect and nurture kids.


Kaitlin on May 12, 2011 at 5:38 pm.

Wow, I didn’t even think of the implications of the socioeconomic factor. In the case where kids are only able to eat at school, I would assume that they have an instinct to go for the high-calorie high-fat foods just so that they’re not hungry.

So, the only end result that I can see from this is that you’re going to have the poorest kids either starving by eating the “best” foods or risking shaming from choosing “bad” foods.

Apparently I’ve lived in a bubble all my life because that thought wouldn’t have occurred to me. 🙁


Anna on May 12, 2011 at 7:57 pm.

I didn’t know this. I grew up in a fairly priviliged area in Australia. It wasn’t private school or anything, but everyone I knew had enough food, and could even get something from the canteen every now and then.

Oh man, that is so awful. My heart breaks for those kids who don’t have enough food at home. Being a kid is hard enough without being hungry all the damn time.


Christina on May 12, 2011 at 3:18 pm.

Ridiculous. My oldest takes his own lunch because 20 minutes isn’t enough time for him to get lunch, find a seat and then eat it. When will they be monitoring his brown bag I wonder.

And also, if they are going to snap a picture of what’s left on my middle child’s tray, I want a refund of the food he didn’t have time to even touch, let alone nibble on, in the 20 minutes he has in the lunch room.

And what about the kids who trade food? I’ll give you my jell-o for your chocolate milk. There are so many flaws in this study it’s mindboggling.


Marianne on May 13, 2011 at 9:02 am.

That’s exactly how it is with my older child who is in Jr. High. She takes her lunch because there is simply not enough time for her to eat if she also has to wait in line.


Maryjane Heyer on May 25, 2011 at 11:18 pm.

Actually, at some schools they are phasing out kids taking their own lunch – making school lunch mandatory.


AniaGosia on August 5, 2011 at 11:31 pm.

What?? They are making eating that crap mandatory? Ridiculous! So now these kids can’t even bring their own healthy/ethnic/veggie/etc food?

I write on Foucault and it seriously scares me how on target he always was. If you guys haven’t read Discipline and Punish, I *highly* recommend it. Reading group, anyone? 😉


Twistie on May 12, 2011 at 3:33 pm.

Factor in – on top of all the excellent points above – the unfailing perversity and creativity of resentful children, and just imagine what might happen.

I know for a fact that had I been confronted with this situation in school I would have gotten together with my best friends and spent hours devising the most ridiculous leftover swaps in the world. We probably would have brought vegetable peelings and bits of leftover meat and candy wrappers ‘borrowed’ from siblings… whatever we could think of… along with a few pencil shavings and other inedible things, just to annoy the panopticon and emphasize our freedom of will.

And you know what else? My parents would not only have applauded my efforts, they would have aided and abetted them, too.

That when my mother was president of the Board of Education.


Tetra on May 12, 2011 at 4:16 pm.

That was my first thought too — that the system seems ridiculously easy to break. Just stir all your leftovers together! Swap them with friends! ‘Accidentally’ spill your food day after day. Swap barcodes on trays at random. Collude with your friends before hand, and you buy Jenny’s food and Jenny buys yours and then you trade trays at the end. Intercepting the damn letter out of the mailbox before your parents get it… All of these popped into my mind about 5 minutes after they described the system. And I didn’t even consider the option of just dropping random crap like pencil shavings on there. Or whatever ingenious ways the kids will undoubtedly come up with to beat this thing, seeing as they’ll have weeks to think it over.


Meowser on May 12, 2011 at 9:39 pm.

OMG, Twistie, that is hilarious. Think of the endless possibilities, San Antonio kids! Cat treats! Gum erasers! A hotdog-shaped dog toy! Go for it!

I of course am laughing that I may not scream. This is NOT going to end well, not to mention that it will tell them precisely zilch about what they think they want to know.


HistoryMatters on May 12, 2011 at 4:18 pm.

Such a great breakdown of the story, and epic fail that is this study. But, really, I wanted to comment on how much I LOVE your use of Foucault in your analysis! I have a lot of trouble with Foucault in general, but the Grad class that we talked about him in just paid off since I felt very smart knowing what you were referencing. 🙂


Anna on May 12, 2011 at 7:58 pm.



sandrad on May 12, 2011 at 4:32 pm.

Oh dear, when I was in grade 4 or 5 this would have been viewed as the Best. Game. Ever. Lively (and stealthy) episodes of swap the leftovers would have ensued. I predict chaotic and useless data. Hope I’m right


kbryna on May 12, 2011 at 4:34 pm.

Awful. Just awful, for the reasons mentioned in the post and in comments. MORE surveillance is rarely a good thing, it seems to me, except in places where, I don’t know, people are regularly planting roadside bombs.
This is bad for everyone, for all of the kids involved, but I especially cringe thinking about kids who are already caught in some kind of food-or-weight-or-appearance related net. Plenty of kids worry about getting fat, or being fat, or being TOO fat, and plenty of parents feed right into this – even with children who are spectacularly average.

I also feel outraged that this is being perpetrated on children who – presumably – have not consented (and maybe can’t consent) to participate in a study. As with many other things in this world, I feel that we ought to be “experimenting” on ourselves before forcing our children to be the guinea pigs. I don’t have kids and don’t want any, but I am rather fiercely on the side of the rights of the child, and I’m pretty sure socio-medical surveillance infringes on the rights of those kids.


Veronica on May 12, 2011 at 4:34 pm.

Oh gods, I don’t even want to think about what this might do to the fat kids whose parents are already trying to “fix” them.


SugarLeigh on May 12, 2011 at 4:54 pm.

I don’t think these people did their homework prior to the design of this study. Sharing and trading food with other kids is an integral part of lunchtime social behavior, at least it was at my school. I might pocket my apple for later. I might decide something looked gross and pass it to a friend. If I loved the rice pudding and my pal thought it looked like maggots, score! Second helping. And of course you know at least a spoonful of those peas was surreptitiously launched at someone, one by one at the end of a spoon, either by you or the person sitting next to you if they noticed you weren’t going to eat them.

Not to mention kids have ways of taking care of their own… if there was a friend of ours who we knew was likely to be punished for eating, knowing our little crowd we’d be getting extra food or going hungry on days we knew we had something waiting for us later, and food would be finding its way to the friend that needed it.

And this won’t daunt kids with eating disorders for even a minute. They don’t have to eat a bite of that tray, all they have to do is make it disappear in some way before the “after” snapshot– not hard to do in a crowded caf full of hungry, squirmy children.

In short, I don’t think before and after shots of the trays are necessarily an accurate indication of what is going into a kid’s stomach.

You know, when I was doing my research I had to get clearance from the Ethics Committee– nevermind, they probably thought this vileness was soooo brilliant. :[


KellyK on May 12, 2011 at 5:06 pm.

Reason number 437 why I’m scared of having kids. Every day, the level of micromanaging scrutiny and crazy expectations seems to increase. The obesity panic is probably the worst example, but not the only one.

I wish these researchers realized that scrutinizing what kids eat is the opposite of healthy and it has the potential to screw with their eating habits *and* their self-esteem and emotional health. And, as you’ve said, it’s incredibly naive to think that that scrutiny won’t mess up the results six ways from Sunday.

Can we give Ellyn Satter and Katja Rowell two-million bucks to improve the school lunch set-up instead?


Alexie on May 12, 2011 at 5:24 pm.

What a completely bizarre experiment. It can’t possibly work – there’s just no way that the system can cope with a crowded cafeteria of lively kids.

Leaving aside the moral questions that come with turning a cafeteria into a Big Brother style totalitarian institution, I want to know how much this monitoring is going to COST. I thought public schools were broke?

Also, it all seems arse backwards. If the powers-that-be are so concerned about what kids are eating in school, why don’t they just change the menu? Instead of offering unhealthy choices and then shaming and penalising children for choosing them?


Kaitlin on May 12, 2011 at 5:46 pm.

I know that if this had been implemented while I was still in primary school, all hell would have broken loose. I’m actually sitting here thinking about what would be the best things to put on the trays.

But, in all seriousness, how far is society willing to go to condition children to accept that they will never be good enough until they are stick thin? (No offense meant at that term)

I don’t think the project will get very far. Like SugarLeigh mentioned, kids trade food. It’s impossible to prevent. Plus, you will always have food from outside sources. Unless the school is going to be completely totalitarian and ban kids from bringing in their own food (which is an entirely different can of words) and put punishments in place for skewing the results, there’s no way that this can work. There’s just way too many variables!


Natalie Sera on May 14, 2011 at 8:10 pm.

At least one school district that I know of has ALREADY banned kids from bringing their own lunches. On the misbegotten theory that what the school feeds them is healthier than what their parents might pick. Little bit of overgeneralization there?


Michele on May 16, 2011 at 5:49 pm.

Natalie, what school district is this?


Jill on May 22, 2011 at 4:12 pm.

Not Natalie, but several Chicago Public Schools have instituted bans on this. I don’t think it’s district-wide policy yet, however.


Anna on May 12, 2011 at 7:51 pm.

this is a really interesting post. i’m glad you brought up the Panopticon. I hadn’t made the connection, but now that you’ve pointed it out, it is exactly what it is.

It really bothers me when other scientists are this ridiculous. Do they really think that kids feeling self concious about what they eat will inspire them to be healthy? REALLY?! There are so many things wrong with that idea I don’t even feel I can articulate them.

Thank you for posting this.


matt on May 12, 2011 at 7:54 pm.

as someone who has battled with weight problems since he was a kid, i feel very comfortable saying that it IS my personal responsability. i’m so sick of people trying to blame society for their problems. if you don’t mind being overweight, that’s totally ok with me; to each there own. i was unhappy being obesce, not because society told me it was bad, but because i was uncomfortable. i was always hot, i’d wake up sweaty, my clothes never fit right, etc.

so i took steps to change. in increased my level of physical activity, removed some seriously toxic foods from my diet (fast food and soda, primarily) and stuck with it.

when it comes down to it, you can make excuses, or you can make progress, but you can’t do both.

all that being said, i wholeheartedly agree that the nature of this experiment is disturbing at best.

but it’s not society’s fault you’re fat.


matt on May 12, 2011 at 7:55 pm.

^ to each their* own.


Lesley on May 13, 2011 at 9:20 am.

Hi Matt! And welcome! It’s totally cool for you to accept personal responsibility for your size. It’s less cool for you to impose that idea on other people.

My point was never that fatness is “society’s fault”—my point is that the causes of fatness are extremely diverse and subjective. Some folks are fat because they can’t be arsed to make whatever sacrifice would be necessary to be thin. Some folks are fat because of biological or genetic factors that are utterly out of their control. Recent science on the matter has begun to suggest, as the report mentions above, that fatness is taking place even in populations of people who eat less than minimum recommended requirements. I don’t think it really matters, as I’d argue that whatever the reason a person is fat, they should not be punished for it.

My point is: we don’t really know what makes a population predisposed to fatness, because there are a huge number of variables involved. This is why studies like this are done.

“Society”, however, is certainly not uniformly to blame, recent ridiculous articles about fat-as-contagion notwithstanding.


QoT on May 12, 2011 at 8:08 pm.

Following on from the commenters who already pointed out the swapping/pre-planning issues … one can only assume that once the researchers yet again get “confusing” results (they eat so little yet are fat! Cannot compute!!!) it’ll then become “and we have to film the kids while they eat” and then “we have to put the children in individual hermetically-sealed pods while they eat” because lord knows anything’s better than challenging the dominant narrative about “health”.


Sabayon on May 12, 2011 at 9:15 pm.

My first thought was how handily this shifts the burden of providing healthy lunches to children. Instead of focusing on offering nutritious actual food containing meals by the school they have made it an issue of what students “choose”. This is compounded by the fact that generally, at least when I was a student in San Antonio public schools a little more than a decade ago, the free or reduced lunches included way less (or possibly no) options. If you had money you could buy salads, fruit plates, curly fries, or taquitos as you wished but free lunch was: drink, entree of school’s choice, bread or potato product, vegetable (which could be a packet of pasteurized picante sauce), possible fruit, usually from a can in heavy syrup, and some sort of desert something. period.
Thus will children be scolded for eating the crappy lunch provided by the school, who is acknowledging absolutely no responsibility of their own.


AcceptanceWoman on May 13, 2011 at 12:38 am.

My thoughts — why scrutinize what children eat? Have they never heard of “The Division of Responsibility in Feeding Children?” It’s the school’s responsibility to serve nutritious food, and the kids decide what to eat.
It’s really bizarre to think that parents can somehow control what their children eat of the food that’s served at school. That would require a level of discipline that would likely cause a crazy amount of craziness for all involved.
I hate, and I mean HATE, allowing children to choose food and then scolding them for their choices. It’s a recipe for disaster.


kbryna on May 12, 2011 at 10:02 pm.

Reading over the article, some salient points:
The $2 million is a grant from the US Department of Agriculture. Our tax dollars at work! And let’s not go into the myriad ways the Dept of Ag intersects with all kinds of corporate food interests.

The school principal is clearly a fool, saying “getting consent from parents hasn’t been a problem. He suspects the small number [10%] 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…It just says we’re tracking what it is.”

The article also cites another study conducted about kids and fatness: “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.”
So 10% of not-consenting parents is a small number. Is 7% of studied kids screening positive for Type-2 diabetes also a small number?
I wonder.
It seems awfully small to me. Not insignificant, just small. Especially when the media yatters on and on and makes it sound as if all children living in poverty are 1) beyond deathfat and 2) in the raging throes of diabetes.

$2million effing dollars, for this crap study. God, do you know how many extra teacher salaries that could pay? Maybe some more special ed instructors, or arts education? Or maybe funding early-childhood education? All studies show early childhood education AND smaller class sizes produce better learning outcomes. Instead, these asshats are frittering away $2million on barcodes and secret cameras to watch kids take food.


Meowser on May 13, 2011 at 6:56 am.

And that 7% screening positive for type 2 diabetes, if true, is way, WAY higher than the national average for people younger than 20 in the U.S., which runs about 1/8 of 1%. If that’s true, that means almost ALL the cases of T2d among people under 20 are seen in the poorest populations. Which in turn, means poverty, NOT fat, is what they need to be looking at if they want to get serious about T2d in the under-20 set. (Which I don’t think they actually do, pardon my cynicism.)


Emerald on May 13, 2011 at 6:54 am.

And this won’t daunt kids with eating disorders for even a minute. They don’t have to eat a bite of that tray, all they have to do is make it disappear in some way before the “after” snapshot– not hard to do in a crowded caf full of hungry, squirmy children.

SugarLeigh, that was me. Not eating disordered exactly, but I had issues with the textures of a lot of foods (possibly Asperger-related, which of course nobody understood back in the 70s). And British schools back then, or mine at least, were especially stringent about making sure you ate every scrap of what was on your plate, even if it made you gag. I basically got away with eating barely any lunch for about five years, before I got to join the packed-lunch crowd. Sometimes I’d manage to palm food off on other kids, but I wasn’t popular and someone would always tell on me. It struck me as odd that (unlike my other behavioral issues) the teachers didn’t discuss this sooner with my parents, but I realized some years on that my mother had indeed been aware, but assumed ‘picky eating’ wasn’t a problem as long as I was a thin kid. (When I started putting on weight from finally eating three meals a day, and to cap that, entered into early puberty – that was a problem.) So, yes, I think when a child does appear to have a troubled relationship with food (which has nothing at all to do with what they may weigh), schools might want to step in and check out what’s happening. But this is not the way to do it.


Elaine on May 13, 2011 at 8:58 am.

They’re just trying to train the next generation of obedient workers for the state!

No, seriously, I know I might sound “off” on this forum, but to me this is just another example of the US moving towards a police state. Look at how the TSA takes away bodily autonamy now (and recall just how fast these security measures were applied!). Read the Patriot Act. Think about retroactive immunity for telecom campanies that helped with warrantless wiretapping BEFORE and during the Bush administration. Look up internet “kill switch”. Look up the new health care legislation and the fact that all medical records will have to be electronic soon and that BMI will have to measured and monitored or doctors may lose federal subsidies. Your i-phones track you as does Google (but nobody cares because they’re “hip” and “cool” and have mottos like “do no evil”). Oh, and don’t even get me started on the new police vans equipped with x-ray devices used to see through wall (yes, they are out there, look them up).

I don’t care what political party you hail from, these measures are un-Constitutional and invasive.

Sorry about getting off topic, your article was wonderful and throught-provoking as always!


Marianne on May 13, 2011 at 8:58 am.

Thanks for this post, Leslie. You know what I found highly annoying about the article? At the end of the article, they quote some school official who says something along the lines of “the few parents who did not give consent must not fully understand what we are doing, or they think that this will somehow restrict their child’s choices, but it won’t” or something along those lines. As if any parent who objected to such an intrusive experiment on their children just must not UNDERSTAND, it certainly can’t be that they have thought it out and decided that such tactics are not in the best interests of their child. It really chapped my ass. I would no sooner consent to such an experiment on my child than I would consent for the school to start beating them, but I just must not fully understand.


paintmonkey on May 13, 2011 at 11:01 am.

Wow, what an excellent way to totally freak children out and breed neurosis.

Back in my day at school (in the UK) , we had delightful rosy-cheeked “dinner ladies” as they were called who tut-tutted at your tray if you didnt have a slice of cake or something that looked nice piled high. “Ooh go back lovey and get some cake” they’d say, or “its cold outside – go back and get some treacle sponge and custard.” Of course the kids loved that treatment and the dinner ladies were worshipped accordingly as something akin to goddesses. Nobody had hang-ups about food or eating, and it was just totally cool and easy-going thanks to these women. They would have probably passed out cold about the bullshit research project and probably baked the researchers into a giant pie so they were never heard of again.


I-Need-Vambrances on May 13, 2011 at 12:28 pm.

This study grinds my gears for all the reasons mentioned above. I want to see healthy food choices for kids, not crap. I have been in a lot of schools (working on an M. Ed. in English) and I know that the lunches provided for kids are not made up of healthy food.

To add something to your argument, the panopticon has been appropriated for modern schools. Schools are built around a central hub with hallways extending. There are emergency doors at the end of each hallway and fire doors at the start. There is a space in the atrium/hub/rotunda that is several square feet where anyone can stand and see down each hallway. The argument is that it is safer because threats can be seen and blocked with the fire doors. I see it as another danger because if ANYONE can see down those hallways, anyone can do damage before the fire doors are shut.

Surveillance of our students is very, very real. And this study is only going to produce skewed results. However, I have a tiny hope that someone, somewhere, will use it to show how schools avoid responsibility when it comes to providing a decent lunch.


I-Need-Vambrances on May 13, 2011 at 12:32 pm.

Additional info–the panopticon has also been appropriated for modern prisons, which are often designed as pods. Within each pod, the cells are located along the walls and the guards are in the center. Our schools are prisons are officially designed by the same people.


Bilt4Cmfrt on May 13, 2011 at 7:42 pm.

Lovely. Reminds me of the GeoSat linked pedometers that where proposed by some wonk for British school kids. Obviously attacking (since, yah know, obesity must be attacked) the problem from the opposite angle, they wanted to see how much exercise kids were actually getting (calories out in this case) and wanted to track the kids every move via global positioning satalite.

Yeah, it’s gone THAT far.

This was about a year ago and i don’t know if the Brits actually followed through. Still, it had me wondering if any of the more radical kids thought about strolling down to the docks and attaching thier pedo’s to cargo containers. Yah know, so the Health Agency could track their progress as they walked across the Atlantic.

Would be kinda good if kids in the US started thinking about ziplocking roadkill and other appatizing goodies for those calorie revealing after-lunch food tray pics.


Violet on May 14, 2011 at 4:20 pm.

“Not to mention kids have ways of taking care of their own… if there was a friend of ours who we knew was likely to be punished for eating, knowing our little crowd we’d be getting extra food or going hungry on days we knew we had something waiting for us later, and food would be finding its way to the friend that needed it. ”

This exactly. I would have absolutely loved messing with something like this in elementary school as my friends and I spent a lot of time constantly messing with every other system we could.

I was tiny in elementary and middle school, ridiculously so and therefore was lucky enough not to every have to deal with eating/body shame (although I had plenty for other things like being shy, winning a spelling bee, liking to read, having ears that stuck out, etc., so fun being a kid). I would have just piled on a bunch of food and given it away to friends who didn’t want to be recorded taking it, because I wouldn’t have cared what they saw me eating or even if they reported it to my parents. Only my grandma every got on my case about eating and that was only to make sure I ate healthy, well-rounded meals with a variety of food, not for eating too much.

As it was, I helped out in the cafeteria in exchange for free food and I secretly gave away extras of a lot of the most desirable items (like tater tots and cookies) to kids who asked me for them.


Rachel on May 14, 2011 at 6:01 pm.

Love love LOVE the title of this post. Especially since Foucault compared schools to prisons; or at least identified the same underlying means of control, surveillance, and power in both. Paranoia really makes for some riveting arguments.


Rachel on May 14, 2011 at 6:27 pm.

Also, this is disturbingly reminiscent of reform-era social controls enacted through policy changes:
“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.”

It’s the upper-middle class imposing its standards on what they see as “lesser” groups. Those who know better must help these poor souls and mold them to better fit the “healthy” image. How patronizing! It also sets a dangerous precedent in its use of surveillance to target these “problem” populations. Eugenics, here we come, again.


Gillian on May 15, 2011 at 11:47 am.

This and the comments about the 20 minute lunch (including recess!) makes me scared for my own possible future kids. Things just keep getting worse. Stuff like this makes me question whether I want to reproduce at all.

I’m a very quick eater – it’s not healthy, I know I’ve developed that habit because eating is seen as a waste of time, time I could spend working. It’s really upsetting to hear schools are trying to train all their students to have that mentality, that you should wolf down just enough food so you don’t faint, as quickly as possible so you can get back to work.


Christina on May 15, 2011 at 3:26 pm.

This whole idea scares the hell out of me. I am literally flashing back to my obese 10 year-old self picking at my lunch tray and glancing around, totally paranoid that the other children would notice that I was actually eating. If you add to that the idea of someone monitoring my tray and then reporting to my parents?!

My point is that this whole system can and will be incredibly detrimental to children who already struggle with disordered eating.


Christina on May 17, 2011 at 8:06 am.

I asked my elementary aged children about this. My daughter said she’d feel extremely uncomfortable and would try to think of ways to mess up their system so they couldn’t track her. My son said he was ok with it because “It’s just food.”


Lisha on May 26, 2011 at 1:15 pm.

Did these families volunteer to be guinea pigs?! Why do I feel like this would never fly in upper crust schools and communities? This is not new…
“researchers” going into minority and underserved communities, convincing them they’re there for the good of the community and then using their lack of knowledge against them. Doesn’t seem anyone is considering the consequences of something like this at all.


Dennis Smithson on June 3, 2011 at 9:21 pm.

Err, what’s so bad about this? I mean, parents have a legitimate interest in the diet of their children and data about leftovers could help the school optimize the menu. Frankly, I’d love it if an automated system tracked my diet and reported on it to me.

Some people raised concerns about abusive parents doing harm, but abusive parents are going to do harm anyway by definition. Concerns were raised about obese children, but lunches are already being observed by their peers, why would parents and the school having the same information as all a kids classmates cause additional problems?


Lesley on June 13, 2011 at 9:51 am.

I think people have been pretty clear about their criticisms. Maybe re-read the post and comments?


mrcni on June 10, 2011 at 5:57 pm.

i agree with your response though i can’t help from wondering. i think part of my issue at the moment begins… well, self policing didn’t just suddenly show up in the childrens’ lives with this project. they’ve experienced it already in different ways, so i don’t think it’s fair to place this project as the cause for possible future eating disorders among the students… which you’re not, but i feel like it’s not an unlikely leap. of course, i understand the response that this experiment alone may not be a sole cause, and is itself an effect of something larger which all contributes to possible eating disorders.

but when we’re talking about potential we have such wide range of movement, do we further limit ourselves when we start the conversation in the direction of eating disorders, or more generally the negative effects of such projects?



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