Too-short lunch periods, windowless, cramped cafeterias, and noise levels so loud they virtually guarantee a headache.
None of those conditions are conducive to a relaxed, pleasant eating experience, yet according to a new report released today by FoodCorps, the food education nonprofit, they’re all too common in school cafeterias across the country.
The organization’s “Reimagining School Cafeterias” report, which was released this morning, is based on interviews conducted last year with over 300 students and 100 adults—school nutrition staff, teachers, administrators, custodians, and others—at nine diverse schools around the country.
The upshot, according to FoodCorps, is that “too often, our education system approaches feeding 30 million kids a day as a burden: lunch time is a drain on learning time, cafeteria culture is a drain on school culture, and good meals are a drain on the general fund.” Instead, the organization hopes to “reimagine” the cafeteria experience as one in which school meals become “opportunities for connection over a meal with culturally relevant ingredients in a warm, joyful, and convivial environment.”
That’s an enticing vision, but how can we make it a reality?
With financial support from the salad chain Sweetgreen, FoodCorps plans to start by launching three pilot programs in 15 schools this year, expanding them to 50 schools next year. These programs are described as:
Tasty Challenge: Kids taste a vegetable or fruit prepared at least two different ways and vote for their favorite! The school’s cafeteria staff may even decide to put the winning dish on the menu.
Flavor Bar: Kids customize their meals by picking a few sauces, spices, and condiments to put in the cafeteria, with approval from cafeteria staff. Kids can explore new flavors and share their community and culture with others.
Our School Cafeteria: Kids brainstorm how they might update their school cafeteria environment and then see their ideas come to life! Students lead discussions around how the cafeteria feels and sounds, and schools work with kids to approve the ideas and make them happen.
Obviously, these pilot programs alone can’t solve many of the entrenched problems discussed in the report (and elsewhere), such as too-short lunch periods, inadequate federal school meal funding, and aging, cramped cafeterias. But they’re certainly a welcome first step in giving students more say over their own school meal experience.
You can read the full report FoodCorps report here and the organization’s summary of its findings here.
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