Building Blueprint

Attracting Students to Healthier Food Choices Through Dining Design

While it may feel like students are often speaking a different language from other generations, there’s one thing we all have in common — we eat with our eyes first. So, it is imperative that in a nation where childhood obesity has tripled since the 1970s, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, and the number of participants in the National School Lunch Program receiving free or reduced lunch has risen from 15 percent in 1969 to 72 percent in 2016, students are presented with food options and physical environments that encourage healthy eating.

Stevenson High School dining hall 

Stevenson High School wanted to showcase its new dining hall with improved LED lighting with recessed adjustable spot lights.

But as educators have discovered, healthy eating at school isn’t just about changing the menu — it’s also about the increasing significance of the student’s dining experience. This is why more and more school systems are engaging firms like ours to design and build dining facilities that motivate students to opt for healthier school meals.

In fact, research shows that dining hall design upgrades can yield a number of positive results for both schools and students. Here are some examples to chew on:

Lessons from Starbucks and Chipotle

As part of its Facility Master Plan, Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., worked with us to reinvent its outdated food service facility, which with its utilitarian finishes, overhead florescent lighting, a drop ceiling and a layout that channeled students through a single service line had a decidedly “institutional” image. We responded with a forward-thinking design that took its cue for lighting, display, signage and even technology from popular retailers like Starbucks and Chipotle.

The new space was redesigned with upgraded finishes that evoke a warmer, more restaurant-like feel. Large-scale porcelain floor tile, wood veneer plank and baffle ceilings, a mix of glass and Herringbone-patterned porcelain wall tile, a chalkboard display wall, quartz countertops and laminate enclosures at the food stations, and carpeted dining areas mimic what students encounter when dining out.

Much in the way stores uses appealing lights to sell clothes, Stevenson High School wanted to showcase its new dining hall with improved LED lighting with recessed adjustable spot lights, indirect up and down cover lights at the perimeter to graze light partitions, glass pendant fixtures over select food stations and recessed linear fixtures. We also used a color rendering index measurement of (RA) greater than 90 in the lighting and chose fixtures that accommodate directional aims to highlight the food.

By creating separate food stations — including Homestyle, International, Grill, Tossery, Hot and Cold bars — students can move between options easier, which results in shorter lines. And signage at these stations does more than just label what’s on the menu. The use of fun infographics, photographs and even video draws students to the healthier options at these stations.

This dynamic approach extends to food preparation, too. At Chipotle, the kitchen makes food to spec. While school food service facilities can’t go that far, they often can prep the food to spec, engaging students in the action of the experience.

Another lesson from retail: put the goods you want to sell at the front of the store. At Stevenson High School, we brought the healthier food stations, such as salads and assortments of fruits, vegetables and prepared protein options, up front and positioned pizza, burgers and fries deeper into the space.

All of these changes have yielded clear results for Stevenson High School. Purchases of less healthy options decreased within one year after the renovation: burgers were down by 5,200, and salads were up by 10,000. Purchases of fries plummeted from $144,000 to $50,000, and students chose pizza 26 percent less often. Yet, the average cost for lunch at the school has increased only minimally, from $2.90 to $3.21.

student food stations 

By creating separate food stations, students can move between options easier, which results in shorter lines.

Catering to the On-Demand Generation

Today’s Gen Z students (middle schoolers and up) as well as the emerging Alpha generation (currently in preschool and elementary school) have grown up with instant gratification and highly visual experiences thanks to early access to technology, including mobile devices.

This also means they have never lived without an abundance of on-demand choices. As such, engaging these students to make healthy meal choices means offering as much variety as possible, keeping lines short and, in the case of some schools, providing access to food throughout the day. For example, as part of our design-build food service project for District 99 in Downers Grove, Ill., we are creating café-style spaces at its two high schools, Downers Grove North and South, that will serve students outside of the traditional lunch period. This aligns with the design approach to the common areas of a college student union.

And, as more schools take a page from universities and adopt flexible eating schedules, these options will become more relevant in school food service design. We also are currently working with Main Township High School District 207 in Park Ridge, Ill., to design upgrades that will create food service spaces that best serve students with a partial block schedule.

In addition, with the move away from lunch-only food service, some schools have begun offering after-school options for students involved in sports, music programs and other extra-curricular activities.

Fortunately for these generations, schools aren’t alone in encouraging healthy eating. Parents of Gen Z and Alphas are more aware of the importance of nutrition, and they are raising their children with an emphasis on healthy, sustainable food. For them, this goes beyond asking schools to remove soda and candy bars from vending machines.

Adapting to these students has also given rise to an interest on the part of some schools to introduce food kiosks and mobile ordering. The day when a student can place an order on an app and walk into the lunchroom to pick up their food isn’t too far off. Standing in a long line, pushing a tray along a counter past a limited assortment of entrees and side dishes may soon be as anachronistic as banging chalkboard erasers together to clean them.

high school dining hall entrance 

The new space was redesigned with upgraded finishes that evoke a warmer, more restaurant-like feel.

Supporting Socio-Emotional Learning and Well-Being

Renovated and flexible, nutrition-focused food service and dining spaces also have an impact on student’s socio-emotional well-being. For example, in the case of open campuses, schools that have appealing food offerings and settings see reduced trips off campus for lunch, which in turn cuts down on potential safety and time issues caused by students leaving school. Staying on campus for lunch also gives students more time to access the school resources they need, whether that’s an opportunity to complete homework in school, meet with teachers or connect with peers. Since opening its new dining hall, Stevenson High School has seen the number of purchased lunches increase from 64 percent to 84 percent, indicating that fewer lunches are purchased off campus.

Another by-product of better nutrition is better grades. Healthier eating has been shown to raise student achievement by four percentage points, according to California State Department of Education and Economics at the University of California.

These examples illustrate just some of the latest approaches to food service design and why it’s so critical for schools to get involved. Not only can changes like the ones mentioned above have a positive impact on a student’s nutrition, but they can also help future-proof schools in an environment where change is quicker and more compelling than ever.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Spaces4Learning.