Have you ever wondered whether your child is really eating carrot sticks for lunch and not just slipping them into the trash? A recent experiment by Cornell University researchers illustrates one way to find out.
The researchers gave children “Nutrition Report Cards” (NRCs) in the form of emails detailing everything they selected for lunch; these were sent home every week to their parents. The researchers reported that “NRCs encouraged more home conversations about nutrition and more awareness of food selections” and were associated with students reducing the amount of some items (cookies) that they chose. Such “report cards” may be a good way way to promote healthy eating and nutrition, but are they yet another instance of surveillance over students?
What is a Nutrition Report Card?
The Cornell researchers (as they themselves note) only studied a small sample of students. The study was conducted for five weeks in a small, rural school district in New York. 27 parents received a weekly email that listed the number of “meal components (fruits, vegetables, starches, milk), snacks, and a-la-carte foods” their child had selected. The researchers analyzed what students in the study chose versus what students in a control group did, both before and after the five weeks. Parents were invited to participate in the study by the researchers, and school cafeteria cashiers were trained to use special “virtual buttons” on their machines to track students’ selection of fruit/vegetable items, starchy sides, and white milk.
Using the NRCs may, according to the study, “impact what lunch foods their child selects.” Students whose parents had signed up to receive the NRCs chose slightly fewer cookies at the end of the study time period; they also chose fruits and vegetables more frequently and flavored milk less frequently.
Due to receiving the “report cards” about their children’s lunch choices, some parents had “nutrition conversations with their children”; others “expressed appreciation for knowing what their children were eating and reported that the NRCs altered what they served at family meals.” Some of the parents used their participation in the Cornell study as “an opportunity for nutrition education” and also for getting a better sense of how exactly their children were using the funds they had placed in a lunch account. “Keeping track of what my children were purchasing at school was helpful in talking with them about making better choices about food,” one parent commented.
Do NRCs Impinge on Students‘ Privacy?
While noting that additional research with far more participants ought to be conducted, the researchers concluded that their study does show that NRCs are “feasible and efficient.” Fighting childhood obesity — eighteen percent of children ages six to 19 are now obese – has become a paramount public health concern, amid rising rates of diabetes and high blood pressure among children, the acknowledged unhealthfulness of the processed, sugary and salty foods and constant efforts to encourage kids to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. A digital report card about a child’s food choices offers a way for parents to keep precise tabs on what their son or daughter is eating.
Therein, though, lies a potential problem with the idea of the NRCs. Should parents really be noting every last cookie and apple slice that a child takes? The Cornell researchers themselves acknowledge “the possible psychological impact of observing and reporting students’ eating behavior to parents” and cite Arkansas’ use of BMI Report Cards that led overweight students to “report being embarrassed by measurement.” While NRCs are “less incendiary,” they still have the potential to “make some students feel uncomfortable.” The NRCs only record what foods a students takes in a cafeteria but not whether she or he actually eats them. As the researchers comment, “students could find other means for acquiring less healthy items, such as vending machines or school stores.”
Reading this study, my first thought was, “Isn’t setting up a lunch-line surveillance system a little extreme? Wouldn’t it be easier if parents just asked their children what they ate for lunch?” But then I remembered the tortured conversations at the dinner tables of my childhood. “What did you learn in school today?” my parents would ask. “Nothing,” my brother and I would say. Conversations about lunch probably went similarly. Parents: “What did you have for lunch?” Kids: “I don’t remember.” The nutrition report cards could change that script a bit.
Getting kids to eat healthfully and let their parents know what they ate (or at least what they put on their cafeteria tray) is just one result from the Cornell researchers’ experiment in Nutrition Report Cards. What the NRCs also reveal is how, yet again, technology has enabled parents, teachers and school administrators to learn more about students than they could before. If the goal is a sound one (helping students learn to eat healthfully), is another layer of surveillance on children’s lives worth it?
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