Inside the re-designing of the school food experience

The cover of the proposal prepared by IDEO for the San Francisco Unified School District. (Photo by Emi Kolawole) Late nights, contentious issues, frustrated community members. There isn’t usually a lot of hugging after school board meetings.

But this time was different.

The meeting ended, and the hugs started.

Students hugged cafeteria workers, foundation directors hugged school district staff, and yes, even school board members hugged each other!

Any regular or casual observer of the San Francisco Board of Education would have likely come to the conclusion that someone had spiked our water. But the collective joy my fellow Board Commissioners and I felt seemed entirely normal.

Then again, this wasn’t an ordinary school board meeting. This was a special meeting to discuss our districtwide effort, to re-design and re-imagine the school food system in the San Francisco Unified School District. The project was conducted in partnership with the design firm IDEO and the Sara & Evan Williams Foundation.

If you’ve ever been a parent or student, you know how important school lunches are. A bad school lunch can ruin a student's day. Students and parents often bring them up as their single biggest grievance. The San Francisco Unified School District is the largest meal provider in the city of San Francisco, serving 33,000 lunches and snacks a day. Finding a way to “get it right” with the help of a fancy design firm was something all of us were excited to dive into.

Still, most of us assumed at the outset that the focus was going to be on getting good food into our schools. It had to be, right? Less fried and packaged food and more tasty green stuff were what most of us hoped for. Strangely, the “what” of school food ended up being just a minor focus of the overall effort. Instead, the focus was on the “how,” “where” and “when”.

Using human-centered design, IDEO and our school food staff found that it would be more appropriate to think of school food as an “experience.” This experience changes and evolves with the developmental needs of our students, and reflects the students’ need to feel valued. All of this is connected to food that should stimulate their senses, and empower them to have a voice in the system. In the final presentation, IDEO offered us ten design recommendations, including vending machines and mobile carts, communal eating, dinner kits, and smart-meal technology. Many of these options had never been seriously considered before.

The recommendations that IDEO and our student nutrition services staff put forward were concrete and promising. But I don’t think it was the recommendations that made us joyful and excited. It was the process.

Inside the proposal prepared for the San Francisco Unified School District on the future of the student dining experience (Photo by Emi Kolawole)

It’s exceedingly rare for schools and school districts to be able to think big, without judgment and to focus on what might be. Design thinking put us in a position to ask “what if” and “why not.” Instead of focusing on a single solution, and spending all our energy figuring out whether we can do that one thing, we reconnected with our “users” (the students) and all of the ways we might be able to meet their needs.

Design thinking allowed us to dream with purpose.

The process also put human beings back at the center of our decision-making. We started with students’ real needs and life experiences. This process was designed for them, and we didn’t start with assumptions about what they wanted. Sure, they wanted good food--but why? What were the deeper needs students had that we could address through school food?

Those who had a stake in school food—cafeteria staff, teachers, principals, school board members, students and parents—were also given a voice and an opportunity to develop deeper empathy for one another. In a system where people often feel like their voice is silenced or ignored, this process found a way to be authentically inclusive.

This meeting also happened to come in my last week of orientation as a fellow -- just before I started the process of diving into my own project to use design thinking to develop new approaches to increasing student engagement and student voice.

The school food re-design experience felt like a preview of what design thinking can mean for education when done right—not just in terms of outcomes and solutions for schools, but also for new student-centered, inclusive, and empathic processes. Though I’m just starting and still have a lot to learn, I feel like I have something to work towards.

Now I know, if I see a lot of hugging, we’re on to something.