Smart-card to curb childhood obesity?

Smart-card to curb childhood obesity?

31 Mar 2011

Catherine ItsiopoulosAssociate Professor Catherine Itsiopoulos



This opinion piece first appeared in the National Times on 31 March 2011.

It’s been dubbed as a tool to spy on what children eat at the school canteen, but, with up to one-third of a child’s daily intake coming from the cafeteria, swipe-card technology may be a useful weapon in the war against childhood obesity.

Swipe-card technology has been tested in 15 schools across Queensland for the past two years. It has now trickled down the coast to Victoria, with schools implementing the card to enable students to buy food at the canteen.

Food choices and the funds to buy them are loaded onto the card, which can be accessed by parents, through the internet, to monitor their child’s food orders and restrict items such as fried foods, chocolates or sweet drinks.

Advertisement: Story continues below This system first gained popularity in Japan, where the Octopus card was launched in 1997. Initially intended for public transport, its purchasing power was later extended to supermarkets and convenience stores. In 1999, an Ohio school launched a similar food choice program to promote healthy eating through the cashless system.

Australian companies such as EEMS have developed tools such as myschoolaccount, a cashless card facility with a canteen module that incorporates a healthy food reward scheme. This scheme is based on Australian dietary guidelines and rewards students for making healthier choices, such as a sandwich instead of a sausage roll.

This type of system is beneficial as it enables parents to control their children’s food options and educate them on healthy choices. It also works as a good budgeting tool because the amount of money allocated to the card can be monitored (by parents) over the internet.

This swipe-card is also extremely useful for younger children with allergies as parents can be reassured that their children will not be able to buy foods that may cause them harm.

It can also help combat childhood obesity, which is emerging as a major public health issue with more than one in four children between the ages of five and 17 overweight or obese. While a recent study found the rate of childhood obesity had declined in the past decade, its authors warned it was too early to say the battle was over.

In response to the rise, the then Labor Victorian government released a Healthy School Canteen Policy in 2007. It acknowledged that school canteens play an integral role in providing food to children and adolescents. It also enforced a ban on high sugar-containing drinks in 2007 and a phasing out of confectionary from 2007-2009. Schools can access an advisory service to help them implement the healthy canteen policy.

These are just some of the strategies for educating students about healthy food choices. To be effective, they need to be supported with a well-developed curriculum and other activities, such as sports programs.

Once a child is obese, it is highly likely they will stay that way into adulthood, leading to chronic health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, sleep apnoea and tiredness. Obesity can also affect a child’s self-esteem, leading to problems with socialisation.

Rewarding children for their positive health choices empowers them to make the right decisions. But this system could be seen as a form of punishment if children are not allowed to have any choices at all. So parents should not only monitor but also include their children in the decision-making process for loading the card.

Without this, the swipe-card could encourage children to swap unhealthy snacks with friends, bring these snacks from home or even leave the school ground to buy junk food.

While all these programs are an excellent way to set healthy habits for later life, they can only be effective in the long term if children are engaged in their food choices and feel they have some control.

Associate Professor Catherine Itsiopoulos is head of dietetics at La Trobe University.




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