- Liz Stinson
Image: IDEOClick to Open Overlay Gallery
High school students in San Francisco’s Unified School District might be able to order their meals via tablet in the future. Image: IDEO
IDEO recently took on a particularly picky client: Kids. More specifically, kids who should be eating school lunches on the regular, but weren’t.
The San Francisco Unified School District hired the design firm (through a donation from the Sara & Evan Williams Foundation) last spring to answer a nagging, persistent question: How do you get kids to eat lunch at school, and get them to do so consistently?
This was a big problem. The district has more than 55,000 students attending 114 schools. Nearly 60 percent of them qualify for free or reduced lunch, but only 60 percent qualifying students were taking advantage of it. Only around 40 percent of all students were eating the lunches on a regular basis. It was a wasted opportunity, and an expensive one at that. “The school district was running a huge operation at what ended up being a deficit because kids weren’t really participating,” says Sandy Speicher, an associate partner at IDEO.
Over the course of five months, IDEO designers embedded themselves in San Francisco schools, where they observed and questioned students about what they wanted from lunchtime. They found there are a few simple ways to get kids to think differently about school lunch, and few of them are about food.
IDEO laid out the findings in its Future Dining Experience proposal. The 200-page booklet suggests a total re-design of the school lunch experience, with specific recommendations like replicating Apple’s mobile checkout system or creating a website where students can submit recipes. But the bulk of IDEO’s work hinges on a few big ideas: Schools need to tailor the dining experience to specific age groups, they should make eating school lunches more convenient and rewarding, and perhaps most importantly, they need to create an environment where and students can take a break and socialize with their friends.
No one had actually asked these kids what was important to them.
Schools typically approach lunch with an assembly line, one-size fits all mentality. What elementary school students experience in their cafeteria is modified only slightly for middle and high school. Ambiance and environment often are sacrificed for the sake of saving time and money. “There’s a lot of legacy design in the cafeteria,” says Speicher, referring to long rectangular tables, inefficient food lines and fixed point-of-sale positions.
IDEO realized that despite the schools’ inherent focus on student well-being, no one had asked kids what was important to them. “We wanted to approach it from understanding the people that this whole system is organized to serve,” says Coe Leta Stafford, a design director at IDEO who worked on the project.
Image: IDEOClick to Open Overlay Gallery
A table captain helps serve vegetables out of a family-style bowl. Image: IDEO
It seems doing so would be obvious, but involving kids in the decision-making never really happened before. Schools adhere to strict policies and requirements, which leaves little room for unconventional approaches. “We’re a large urban school system in America. Innovation really means you’re going to do something 10 years in the future,” says district Superintendent Richard Carranza.
Working with IDEO meant the district’s was able to conduct what was essentially a massive social experiment in real time with real kids. It led to a few breakthroughs.
Lunchroom as Innovation Lab
IDEO’s main suggestions were broken down by school age and catered to the specific needs of elementary, middle and high schoolers:
Kids aren’t quick decision makers. They like to mull things over; they also need time to develop a relationship to food. “When you force them through a line quickly where they have to assemble these components on their tray, they sit down and they’re like, ‘These veggies, meh. I’m throwing that away,’” says Speicher.
IDEO suggested students go to recess first to work up an appetite. Then when the kids get to the lunchroom, which IDEO envisions with “soft lighting and ambient music, they’ll sit down a series of round tables and will be served their meal family-style, starting with the vegetable.
There are no lines. Instead, carts of food come around to each table, serving the students different courses in a set sequence to encourage them to finish what’s on their plates. At such a young age, mealtime is a teachable moment, so every students gets a turn to be table captain, allows them to help serve the food and show responsibility.
In a clever test, IDEO found that if you removed food from its packaging and put it in a bowl, students responded more positively to it. “We served exact same food the cafeteria served, and all of the students said, ‘This isn’t the same food,’” recalls Stafford.
Kids aren’t quick decision makers. They like to mull things over.
Middle-schoolers are a notoriously tough age group. They’re old enough to make their own decisions, but still young enough to need guidance. IDEO’s main suggestion was to give students ownership over their lunchtime experience. “They want a space that they want to be in, and what better way to do that than let them design it,” Stafford says. In IDEO’s plan, twice a year students would redesign their cafeteria space—from artwork to seating. If you ask middle-schoolers what they want, they’ll tell you they want a cafeteria that’s more than just a place to eat. They want an activity hub where they can hang out with friends on bean bags, read a book or do homework.
Students also wanted options for how they get their food, so IDEO designed a system where kids could grab a pre-made meal from a vending machine or mobile cart and enjoy it outside in a lounge area.
By high school, many students would rather go out with friends than stick around campus, which meant creating a convincing incentive for them to eat a school lunch. It was a matter of designing around their busy lives, making it more convenient to drop by the cafeteria than leave. Ideo suggested an express line where students could pick up pre-packaged meals, vending machine meals in student hot-spots and and an RSVP system students would use the night before to indicate whether they’d be eating lunch on campus. IDEO also recommended using loyalty cards, which would reward students with points they can redeem for school merchandise.
Perhaps the most innovative element of the proposal is the “Smart Meal Technology.” The app allows students to pre-order meals, indicate food preferences, and rate the quality of what they just ate. This is a trove of previously untapped data that also gives students a voice in what they’re consuming–something Stafford and Speicher say is invaluable. “Food is currency for kids,” Stafford says. “It’s one of the few currencies they have control over, so we wanted to let them keep that.”
Image: IDEOClick to Open Overlay Gallery
IDEO worked with the SFUSD for more than five months to totally re-design the school lunch experience. Image: IDEO
Think Like a Designer
IDEO’s plan is sprawling, and it’s true that the school district can’t meet every suggestion. But the district plans to implement parts of it, beginning at Willie Brown Middle School in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood in 2015. The school will be an incubator of sorts, testing the Smart Meal Technology and allowing students a say in how the cafeteria is designed.
Though the district would love to implement the plan entirely, things like federal and local policy, reimbursements and labor regulations must be considered. And, of course, financing.
Admittedly, IDEO’s vision sounds a little idealistic for a pragmatic system like a school, but its designers insist the program was rooted in hard numbers. The team worked with the district to nail down exactly what it could spend and how much new revenue had to be generated by this new plan. There were policy considerations, reimbursement regulations and labor rules to think about. “All of those pieces were design tools we had,” says Speicher. “If you think of it like a product, those were the materials we had to design the system.”
School systems can’t afford to move fast and break things. In this world, change happens slowly.
Like many school systems, San Francisco’s operates on a deficit. There are few resources for research and development, even less to invest in a sprawling social experiment like the one IDEO conducted. “We don’t often get the luxury of not getting things right,” says Carranza. “We don’t have the luxury of just trying things out to see if they work or not.”
School systems can’t afford to move fast and break things. In this world, change happens slowly, winding its way through approval votes and bureaucratic tape. “This allows us to do R&D not think about, well, what are the regulations what are we allowed to do, what does the budget look like for this?”
Carranza was so enamored with the IDEO way of thinking, he took his entire cabinet to the San Francisco offices to observe how the design studio works and problem solves. “It’s changed our vocabulary so now we’re talking about the end user and R&D,” he says. “We’re thinking about tinkering as a means to better a outcome.”
The district has since created an innovation lab, a program that asks teachers for pipe-dream ideas so they can start to dream up solutions, no matter how difficult they might be to implement. They’ve already gotten proposals for how to take the problem of wriggling more elective classes into the curriculum, as well as how to give teachers more time to collaborate together.
“This has been a fundamental paradigm shift for us,” he says. “We’re a traditional public school system thinking in a very innovative, entrepreneurial way. Quite honestly, it feels pretty good.”
Learn more about IDEO’s work with SFUSD here.