Will IDEO reimagine SFUSD’s cafeterias?

by Dana Woldow on April 15, 2013

The new SFUSD school meal initiative is just getting started, and already I am hearing some grumbling. Maybe it’s because the work is being funded by The Sara and Evan Williams Family Foundation, and led by the SF office of design group IDEO; neither one has any previous involvement with San Francisco’s public schools. Among the questions I am hearing: What ideas can they come up with that haven’t been thought of before? How can people who don’t understand school meal program regulations and financial constraints possibly be helpful? How many IDEO employees send their own kids to SFUSD schools?

But it won’t be the IDEO staff creating the vision and ideas that the initiative seeks to articulate; that’s not their way. Using a process they call “design thinking“, IDEO sparks creativity by bringing together people from disparate fields and having them bounce ideas off each other. In this case, it could be students, cafeteria workers, parents, Principals, and other school staff. Each person brings something different to the process, and each idea can build off of previous ideas.

The focus is on the “consumer experience”, which presumably for SFUSD means going beyond the food to scrutinize the entire process for students getting and eating a school meal, something that is long overdue. Imagine what kind of ideas might be generated by having students perform the cafeteria worker’s job during a lunch period, or requiring a Principal to race to the cafeteria from a third floor classroom when the lunch bell rings, wait in the endless line, and then try to find a place to sit down and eat. Imagine SFUSD’s Superintendent Richard Carranza and his top brass doing those things, or members of the Board of Education.

As IDEO founder David Kelley says, “We teach that the most important thing in business is to be human-centered.” All the more reason for optimism, as the current SFUSD cafeteria experience is rarely designed around what works best for students. They are the “humans” in that “human-centered” approach, right?

For years, students said they didn’t want to eat in the cafeteria because “school food sucks”, so the focus for SFUSD’s student nutrition services has been on trying to make the food better. Now, with the introduction in January of Revolution Foods’ freshly-cooked meals into all SFUSD cafeterias, the food is vastly better, and yet there are still scads of students who choose not to eat it.

Maybe it’s because when students say “school food sucks”, they aren’t just talking about the food. They are also talking about the whole school food experience, starting with the mad stampede for the cafeteria the minute the lunch bell rings (and in some schools, that “bell” is a nerve-rattling buzzer, foreshadowing the mood of the adventure to come.)

After surviving the rushing tide of humanity flowing to the cafeteria, students can enjoy a wait in line which may use up nearly half of their too-short, 40 minute lunch period. Waiting provides ample opportunity for low income students to experience the stigma of fearing that classmates are pitying them for having to rely on government-paid meals. They may be jostled or shoved by less patient students trying to cut the line; they may have to listen to the barked commands of lunch line supervisors valiantly trying to maintain order, but achieving at best a barely-controlled chaos.

Finally arriving at the food serving area of the cafeteria, students may find that their desired choice for lunch has already sold out, leaving only less appealing options. When your stomach is looking forward to pasta with beef, it’s not so easy to switch to a sunbutter jelly sandwich.

Food acquired, students head out to find a place to sit and eat. Too often, this means a fruitless hunt for a seat at tables designed to accommodate a maximum of 200 students, when in fact 450 show up during the school’s single lunch period. Having just one lunch period instead of two makes planning class schedules easier for administrators.

For those lucky enough to snare a seat, the volume of noise may be deafening, as students enjoy their brief minutes of freedom to chat and blow off a little steam. The prevalence of hard cafeteria surfaces, easier to clean but with no ability to absorb sound, amplifies the chaos.

Is it any wonder too many students bolt their food and run, and that others pass on the opportunity to “enjoy” school lunch in such surroundings? These are the kinds of issues the IDEO study may tackle, not just “fixing school food”, which in every respect except the cost, is already fixed, at least for now.

And yet, the idea of having to wait in line for food, and then have no place to sit and eat it, is not unique to school cafeterias. Every day in San Francisco, people line up at food trucks, wait up to half an hour, and then have to hunt for a retaining wall to sit on to eat – and the media can’t gush enough about how hip, trendy and fabulous food trucks are.

So, why not a fleet of SFUSD-owned and operated food trucks to drive onto the yard at the larger high schools, each equipped with the Point of Sale terminal (necessary to meet USDA regs for counting and claiming) each offering a different specialty offered as a full meal including milk, veg and fruit (necessary for meeting USDA nutrition regs)? If students must line up, wait for their food, and then hunt for a place to sit, why not exploit the hip and trendy aspects of the food truck craze to raise that experience to a whole new level of coolness?

Or what about pop up, or underground restaurants, operated by cult chefs? These temporary, word of mouth phenomena appear for a few nights inside existing restaurants, then disappear. The transitory nature of a pop up and use of social media to get the word out creates the kind of “only for those in the know” aura so essential for an ultimate SF food experience, resulting again in long lines and waits of up to four hours.

As the food truck and pop up crazes prove, people will wait happily in line for a chance to eat food that they feel may be “here today, gone tomorrow”, or food prepared and served by someone to whom they feel a connection. Back in the day when SF’s Aptos Middle School cafeteria was run by legendary lunch lady Rosario Ghiotto, Rosie’s homemade chicken and vegetable soup was always a best seller, not only because it was delicious, but because it was made by Rosie, who was beloved by all. Eating a bowl of her soup was like getting a big warm hug from Rosie herself; it was her “brand.”

What about bringing in SF chefs who have their own “brand”, and who are willing to do a pop up for one day only in a high school cafeteria? Who wouldn’t happily line up for a Vietnamese street food lunch as envisioned and prepared by SFUSD parent and owner of The Slanted Door, Charles Phan? If pop up schedules were sent out to students via social media, so much the better.

IDEO has already contacted Chef Ann Cooper, who redesigned school food in Berkeley and Boulder (CO) to get her thoughts. That’s a great place to start, as no one knows more about the constraints and logistics of trying to remake a school food program than The Renegade Lunch Lady.

But the most exciting part of the IDEO approach may be their ability to stir the pot and generate new ways of thinking about old problems. Let’s face it – those of us who have worked on these issues for years are too acutely aware of the limits imposed by endless government regulations, underfunding, high labor costs, and crumbling facilities, to be able to think too far outside the box. As one longtime school food insider told me recently, “All of the legitimate ways to fix school meal programs are already known.” I suspect that is the kind of thinking that IDEO would describe as not “wide enough.”

Here’s the thing – SFUSD administration is going to have to start widening their thinking too. There have been plenty of ideas about improving the school meal program over the past decade, but too little will to act on those ideas. It’s been known for years that students who eat breakfast do better in school than students who skip breakfast, and while grab n go breakfast has expanded to many SF middle and high schools, SFUSD still has no breakfast in the classroom program for elementary school students.

Getting more students to choose school meals just hasn’t had the same high priority with recent administrations that closing the achievement gap, graduating more students, addressing longstanding problems with special education, or redesigning the student assignment process have had. Ideas that require changes at the administrative level, like adding additional lunch periods, or extending the school day so lunch period can be longer, require the kind of outside the box thinking that may be difficult for some leaders.

Superintendent Richard Carranza has said repeatedly that he wants student nutrition to have a higher priority, and the IDEO-led initiative has his full support. Kudos to him for doing that. Frankly, as someone who has been involved with the effort to fix school food in San Francisco since its inception in 2002, it feels like we have been having the same conversation for a decade. At this point, it almost doesn’t matter what vision IDEO helps create, just so they settle on one and put forward a plan for acting on it that can obtain support at the highest levels of SFUSD.

If this IDEO-led initiative is what it takes to get the full support of the Carranza administration behind making school meals a more pleasant experience for our students, then I am all for it, whatever it may turn out to be.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.

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