Tartan food tracker program improves campus nutrition

Food vendors at Carnegie Mellon offer a variety of health food options. (credit: Michelle Liu/) Food vendors at Carnegie Mellon offer a variety of health food options. (credit: Michelle Liu/)

The majority of incoming first-years are expected to learn the facts of, as Paula Deen would say, “Good eatin.’”

With few exceptions, all students are required to have a meal plan their first year, and they eventually learn the difference between a good meal and junk food, for the most part.

As students progress into their upperclassman years, they learn that living without a meal plan can present added difficulty.

With these considerations in mind, five junior information systems majors met with each other for a class project and began work on creating a nutritional fact tracker for food.

The Tartan Food Tracker (TFT) came from these five students during a transition period in Carnegie Mellon’s push for healthy initiatives.

Recently, programs like Fitness Challenge 2011, which is being spearheaded by Pattye Stragar, operations manager for fitness, have garnered enthusiastic feedback from students.

On a list of student names posted in the University Center, many students have a variety of stickers next to their name, indicating they have exercised for at least 20 minutes for that particular day.

The TFT was created by Ashwin Hegde, Joey Raudabaugh, Arvind Shrihari, Brandon Tyson, and Anthony Zhang.

Essentially, it is an online tool where each student can log on to access nutritional facts about the food offered by vendors across campus.

Students can make a personal log of their food intake while formulating food combinations.

The tool allows students to compare nutritional details such as the number of calories and amounts of fat and protein.

“We’ve worked closely with vendors on campus to get Excel sheets about their meals — something that is a difficult task for small food vendors,” Tyson said. “Though there have been small glitches in creating TFT, we anticipate having every food item in the system.”

Tyson discussed the potential growth of the TFT with confidence, declaring that the team is looking to include off-campus nutritional information.

“It’s easier for large food vendors like McDonald’s to offer their nutritional facts since they’re required to,” Tyson said.

In 2009, a health assessment conducted by Paula Martin, a nutritionist and part of the Health Promotion Office of Carnegie Mellon, showed that 6.2 percent of students are underweight, 19 percent are overweight, and 3.2 percent are considered Class I obese.

Martin has worked closely with the TFT group to ensure that all proper nutritional guidelines are followed.

She is teaching a course this semester titled “Personal Nutrition.” According to the syllabus, the class “empowers students to develop and promote healthy eating attitudes and behaviors for themselves.”

The course has gained popularity, with 15 students on the waiting list and several others auditing. When asked about the student food choice, Martin said, “We offer, students choose.”

Martin has worked closely with vendors and claims that healthful options are available on menus but students still choose otherwise. “Students ultimately choose the chicken fingers,” Tyson said, “and vendors will respond to consumer interest.”

Martin believes that issues of weight go beyond healthful food choices and resonate with body image, a concept introduced in her course.

For example, a slide from her lecture on body image states that “28 percent of women at Carnegie Mellon describe themselves as slightly overweight or very overweight when less than 16 percent are, by body mass index.”

Food choice, exercise, and body image are three closely related concepts.

The TFT program is a nudge for “students [to] become more aware of what they are putting in their bodies,” according to its website.