At exactly 11:55 a.m., 233 hungry sixth-graders burst into the cafeteria at San Francisco’s Roosevelt Middle School. Four kids run outside to a mobile cart, select turkey-and-cheese sandwiches, and head to a table next to a basketball court.
Three boys grab barbecued-chicken salads from a pickup window. One of them makes a beeline for the couch in a cozy “chill out” area of the lunchroom.
A few years ago, San Francisco public-school officials calculated that just 57 percent of students who qualified for free or reduced-price meals actually took advantage of them. Concerned, they tried ditching frozen entrées in favor of fresher meals—but the numbers barely improved. So in April 2013, with help from the Sara and Evan Williams Foundation, the district brought in the design firm Ideo, in hopes of figuring out how to get students more excited about eating at school.
After spending a couple of months observing and interviewing the city’s schoolchildren, Ideo’s team came to see uninviting lunchrooms as its central challenge. Roosevelt’s old cafeteria, for example, had monotonous rows of long tables, dreary fluorescent lighting, and lines so long that kids were left with barely enough time to scarf down their meal before the bell rang. “Everyone focuses on the food,” says Ideo’s Sandy Speicher. “We knew that in order to get kids to eat, the atmosphere had to be enjoyable.”
Remaking school cafeterias as places where a person might actively choose to spend time is a tall order, as anyone who has eaten in one can attest. (Perhaps you recall the humiliation of scanning crowded tables for a friendly face while trying not to drop your tray.) Compounding the problem, dining spaces are practically identical in most elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools—despite the fact that kindergartners and 12th-graders have vastly different needs.