A recipe for a whole new cafeteria experience is being served up in San Francisco public schools, consisting of a pinch of progress, a dash of technology and a sprinkle of student input.
Following a five-month collaboration last year with Bay Area-based design and consulting firm IDEO to rethink the San Francisco Unified School District's food system, officials this fall will launch pilot initiatives to revamp spaces and incorporate technology to transform the overall dining experience for students and faculty.
"We really are changing what it means to eat lunch within the schools," Angela McKee, project manager for SFUSD's future dining experience, said at a recent panel discussion of the topic.
The panel, held May 28 at the urban policy think tank SPUR, revealed the district's vision for a food experience drawing on the input of more than 1,300 students, parents, nutrition staff, principals, teachers and administrators.
"This is the first project where we've taken a truly student-centered approach" to the district's food system, said Zetta Reicker, interim director of Student Nutrition Services for the SFUSD.
What it came up with sounds more like the blueprint for San Francisco's hottest new restaurant than the lunch line at school.
Ten design recommendations unfolded, McKee said, several of which are being developed as pilot programs in at least five schools this fall, renovating cafeteria spaces to go "beyond just long rectangular tables," and updating vending machines and mobile carts.
The district has already seen success from a vending machine installed at Lowell High School in 2011 that allows students to retrieve freshly prepared meals using their school-issued personal identification number.
"Students like the novelty of going up to a machine and putting in their PIN and getting a meal," Reicker said. "They also really like the convenience of it."
The overall food experience will change as students advance from elementary to middle and high school to accommodate their evolving needs, McKee said.
"We're creating dining experiences that are going to change with students as they grow," she said.
The vision also includes developing a smartphone app that will let students pre-order and review meals; creating regional kitchens where school food is prepared and a central warehouse to allow the SFUSD to source fresh and local food; implementing dinner kits for students to take home; teaching kids about healthy food; and having communal meals in which students are served off a cart by staff to eliminate lines.
"It's an incredibly important mission to ensure we are serving our students three nutritious meals a day," said Orla O'Keeffe, executive director of policy and operations for the SFUSD.
The initiative aims to combat a number of challenges the district still faces regarding food, such as low student participation and inadequate kitchen and cafeteria facilities.
Currently, the SFUSD serves 27,500 meals a day (22,000 lunches and 5,500 breakfasts). Of the students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals, only 57 percent are participating in the meal program. And 13 percent of students purchase meals at a regular price.
But the school district is no stranger to transforming the food system. For more than a decade, schools have been phasing out unhealthy food and implementing programs to ensure no child goes hungry while on campus.
In 2004, the SFUSD became one of the first school districts in the U.S. to ban the sale of soda. And last year, the district switched from serving frozen food to freshly prepared meals after contracting with Oakland-based Revolution Foods, which now provides 85 percent of food to more than 100 district schools.
Dana Woldow, who served as co-chairwoman of the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee for nearly a decade until 2011 and writes about school food issues, understands the purpose of the initiative, but said it should focus more on student nutrition and less on how meals are delivered.
"Much of what is in the IDEO plan is like giving a needy little girl a party dress and patent leather shoes when what she really needs is a warm coat, new jeans and a pair of sneakers that fit," Woldow said.
Still, many feel the emphasis on addressing student needs is a positive step.
"We used to have cash boxes and have students come through the line and pay cash for their meals," Board of Education member Hydra Mendoza-McDonnell said. "[We are] leaps and bounds from where we've ever been before, asking students what they want.
"We have never thought about serving meals any other way than cafeteria style."
The initiative, funded by a $400,000 grant from The Sara and Evan Williams Foundation, aligns with a greater national effort to make school meals healthier, including the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.