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If kids could design their own cafeterias, what would they choose?

A new initiative from FoodCorps aims to find out.
Photograph: Shutterstock

In an effort to expand its work around cafeteria development, FoodCorps, a nonprofit that seeks to help schools create healthier school food spaces, began thinking about a new approach. 

“We really wanted to take a deep look at what cafeteria environments look like across the country and develop programming based not on what we thought we knew, but on the diversity of experiences that our partners across the country … have within that space,” says FoodCorps director of program innovation, Lucy Flores, noting that this idea encompasses a variety of stakeholders—students, cafeteria staff, school administrators and community members.

This year, the nonprofit is hosting school pilot programs aimed at cafeteria transformation, centering on providing new healthy options for students as well as modifying cafeterias physically.

The Our Cafeteria project focuses on the latter. With some funding help from fast-casual chain Sweetgreen, which has provided $1 million as a partner of FoodCorps, students at five schools throughout the country are spending this school year crafting and executing ideas to make their cafeterias more inviting.

Sparking student voices

Here’s how the project works: At the start of the school year, a handful of students in grades three through five are selected to represent their student body. These students meet with a FoodCorps service member throughout the year to look at what’s working well in their cafeterias and how they can team up with school officials for improvements.

“[Students] are really engaging nutrition service leaders and their cafeteria staff in this process, along with their principal and their fellow students,” says Erica Curry, FoodCorps national director of education.

During the first few meetings, students participate in a variety of activities to get them thinking about the cafeteria space and what they experience when inside it. These include having students illustrate a map of what the cafeteria looks like to them as well as interviewing cafeteria staff.

"[Students] are really engaging nutrition service leaders and their cafeteria staff in this process, along with their principal and their fellow students." —Erica Curry

From there, the students come up with several different ideas, which are voted on by the entire student body. Student representatives then choose a final option from the top three selected by their peers. Once decided, students spend the remainder of the year working with school officials to bring that idea to life.

A community creation

Because the Our Cafeteria project involves various stakeholders throughout the school, FoodCorps made sure that the schools they chose for the pilot placed an emphasis on community initiatives.

“We have a robust wellness community, and this fits in perfectly with our vision,” says Jeremy Daniel, principal at Brighter Choice Community School in New York City, adding that his students have just finished selecting their representatives and are in the next steps of planning what their project is going to be.

Across the country, students at KairosPDX, a public charter school in Portland, Ore., have also just begun their project. Nutrition and Garden Manager Graham Schreiber is excited to see what students come up with and looks forward to adding a new element to the cafeteria that will ultimately reflect the school community and its values.

“I'm hoping to accomplish something that is totally unique to our school,” he says. “I'm hoping that through this work, we can use our culturally responsive lens to view what these students might want to see in the cafeteria environment and hopefully have that manifest [into] something that is really representative of the community that we serve.”

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