A cellphone camera can be a dangerous thing. Just ask a school cafeteria worker.
An online campaign designed to get young people interested in the quality of their school lunches has produced an unprecedented peek into their world. Students, most of them teenagers, have uploaded more than 7,000 photos of food served in school over the past few weeks.
The campaign, dubbed "Fed Up," also asked kids how they felt about their lunches. The non-profit group that organized the effort is scheduled to release the findings later this week.
"We kind of saw a good mix of nutritious and no-so-nutritious meals," said Farah Sheikh, who runs education campaigns for New York-based Do Something, which urges young people to work on causes they believe in, such as homelessness, domestic violence, cancer and the environment.
A quick look at the photos shows that pizza, hamburgers, chicken nuggets and nachos dominate, though a few photos feature appetizing-looking salads and freshly made sandwiches.
Participants were asked to offer a simple up/down vote on each meal: "Eat it" or "Toss it." The biggest surprise, Sheikh said, was the number of "Eat it" votes for some of the 7,319 lunch photos.
The campaign ran from Sept. 10 to Nov. 15. Overall, about seven in 10 students reported unhealthy, unsatisfying meals. Of those nearly six in 10
reported throwing out all or part of their lunch several times a week, Sheikh said.
At one Maryland high school, a student snapped a picture of a tray with a slice of pepperoni pizza, a salad loaded with cheese, a helping of red gelatin with whipped cream and a carton of chocolate milk. The caption read: "Diabetes on a plate." Eleven viewers said they'd eat it; 43 said they'd toss it.
At a school in California, a student photo read "Pizzehh." It showed a slice of pepperoni pizza, ranch dressing and a serving of French fries - 184 viewers said they'd eat it, while 363 advised, "Toss it."
Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, cautioned that the photo gallery doesn't tell the whole story. It doesn't tell viewers which meals meet recently toughened federal standards or which meals might be items a student chose a la carte or brought in from elsewhere.
"It's hard to know what to make of this except that it looks awful," she said.
Do Something's audience spans young people from 13 to 25 years old, so it includes many college students. They also snapped photos of cafeteria food, Sheikh said, and the difference was startling. College food was rated "exponentially" better, she said.
Nestle said a big factor in quality school lunches is whether the cafeteria staff cares about food and makes it a priority. "If it is, the kids eat better," she said. "If it's not, then they eat the stuff they're showing here."