San Francisco schools roll out student-centered cafeterias

The district’s Future Dining Experience provides students with more options and flexible dining environments.

Like many districts, San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) has made significant progress toward health and wellness in the last 10 years. But according to Zetta Reicker, SNS director for SFUSD, the district’s moves to healthier, more nutritious foods weren’t enough. SFUSD’s Future Dining Experience will change that by transforming lunchrooms into social, functional spaces and, in turn, increasing school meal participation. “We were proud of what we had done, but there were barriers that needed to be addressed,” Reicker says. “We said, ‘Let’s take a step back. What do we want to do in the long term and how do we get there?’”

sf student cafeteria

Through a partnership with the Sara and Evan Williams Foundation and IDEO, a design and innovation consulting firm, SFUSD developed a vision for what it wanted lunchrooms to become. The Future Dining Experience initiative aims to increase school meal participation by creating spaces that meet students’ nutritional and social needs and align with student values. “No matter how great the food we’re serving is, the current cafeterias aren’t a space to have those values met,” says Reicker. “The idea is that if we redesign those spaces and give students the ability to meet their needs, they’ll participate [in the meal program] more.”

In developing the plan, the district started by determining what was important to students. “We looked at what they need to be fulfilled nutritionally and develop lifelong habits,” says Reicker. “We conducted workshops and did prototyping with staff and students. From there, we were able to develop specific design recommendations.”

Those recommendations involved developing three different student experiences, one each for elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools. “Students are with us for over 10 years,” Reicker says. “Over that time, they change. We want the meal program to evolve and grow as students grow.”

The experience for elementary students is focused on ritual and routine; students will be served at the lunch tables and eat communally rather than go through the lunch line. High-school students will be able to have more choices—and more say—in what they eat and when they eat it. “High-school students need to have a voice in the system and feel a sense of control,” Reicker says. Technology is a large part of the high-school experience as well; the plan recommends creating a smartphone app so students can give feedback on meals and request dietary accommodations.

For middle-school students, the meal experience provides flexibility along with structure. “Middle schoolers want to be independent, but they’re not teenagers,” says Reicker. “We really found that lunchtime needed a bit more structure, but it needed to be creative.” Thus, the plan recommends furniture that’s flexible, so students can reconfigure it into different layouts such as a dining mode for eating meals or playing games, a learning mode for students who want to take nutrition or cooking classes, or a quiet mode for students who want to study or read during lunch. “It’s dynamic, and the students dictate it,” says Reicker.

Roosevelt Middle School was the first school to undergo a redesign and offer the new meal experience. The new cafeteria opened in October, and according to Reicker, students absolutely love the space. In addition to the flexible furniture, the district also added additional points of service, such as a grab-and-go mobile cart that can be moved anywhere in the school.

The district is still evaluating participation numbers at Roosevelt, but Reicker hopes that SFUSD can continue to roll out the design recommendations at other schools as well as implement other initiatives such as a supper program and breakfast in the classroom. Next fall, another middle school opening is also scheduled to feature the redesigned space.



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