fruit bar and lunch tray

Smarter Lunchrooms

I am a member of the Smarter Lunchroom Movement. The organization does research and promotes best practices in the design of K-12 school lunchrooms using behavioral science, persuasive design techniques, ergonomics, social psychology, and other sciences and design methods. Simple things like putting healthier foods within easier reach and at the front of the line (when students’ trays are empty and their budgets are full) and the reverse for the junk food.

The objective of the organization is to find effective methods to help students eat healthier. Bans and regulations don’t work because it is too easy for students to avoid the food served in the lunchroom and simply bring their own junk food. Even students eligible for free meals because of low family income resist when they feel they don’t have autonomy and freedom of choice, just like the rest of us (as we have discussed before.

So for this week’s Innovation Monday, I want to feature some of the innovative experiments being tested by the San Francisco public school system in partnership with design firm IDEO and funding from the Sara and Evan Williams Foundation. They are implementing many of the practices of the Smarter Lunchroom Movement as well as a few that are new to me from as far away as Japan.

You can find a fantastic summary of some of their most innovative interventions in The Atlantic from March 2015.

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.”

My Take

Here are my favorites. The first is the variety of seating environments they give the students during lunch to make the whole experience more engaging. The hard copy article has a better photo of some of the new dining spaces, but the web site shows the “Chill Out” room right at the front of the article. This design support introverts who don’t want to sit at a crowded table and be forced to socialize or look awkward. This also works for any students who have work to do. The design also doesn’t focus attention on the less popular kids who don’t have a big peer group calling them over. The design looks a lot more comfortable too.

My second favorite is shown in two photos about halfway down the page. They show the student “table captains” who help serve and clean up. This teaches them the management side of service by giving each student a turn at responsibility – monitoring who has what – as well as the social side of cleaning, recycling, and taking pride in the way the table looks afterwards. I am pretty sure this only works in younger kids (or perhaps other cultures than the independent-minded US teenager), but if you start them early . . . who knows?

At the top of the article, they show some innovative food pickup areas. This is a great use of priming, giving students the impression that they are eating fast food but actually providing them with healthier choices. Make students feel like adults, in control of choosing, but at the same time serving heathier food.

Your Turn

There are plenty of other examples here too. What are your favorites? Do you agree that using behavioral and persuasive techniques is better than bans and regulations? Is it OK to manipulate our kids this way? Do we need to ask parental permission first?

Image Credit: USDA

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