Cookie preferences

HundrED uses cookies to provide a better user experience and a personalised service. Read more about our cookies.
Accept cookies

A Cafeteria Designed For Me

How can school cafeterias be designed to encourage healthy eating in a social environment?

Student centred cafeterias serving healthy, nutritious food in settings where students want to spend time.

HundrED 2018


HundrED has selected this innovation to

HundrED 2018

Web presence






September 2017
Most school cafeterias are a one-size-fits all, highly industrialized operation. But what do students really want? For their senses to be stimulated, to feel valued and heard, to be connected to food…and most of all, to have time to hang out with their friends.

About the innovation

What is A Cafeteria Designed For Me?

For many students, lunchtime is the most important part of the school day. It’s the time when they have free time to catch up with friends. However, budgetary restraints often lead school districts to consider school cafeterias as an industrial style distribution system.

Students line up as if on a conveyor belt and wait as their food is doled out to them. Waiting times are frequently long and the atmosphere can be sterile as students are churned through the process. Students do not want to miss out on time with their friends and so may choose to skip lunch altogether which can lead to unhealthy habits, food waste and financial deficit.

San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and the Sara and Evan Williams Foundation (SEWF) collaborated with IDEO to improve the lunchtime experience for students while maintaining efficiency and working with existing legislation. SFUSD’s first move was to hire Revolution Foods which provides some of the healthiest school meals in the USA. Though Revolution Foods provided a significant improvement in food options, students were still rushing to leave the cafeteria or skipping lunch altogether.

IDEO realized that they needed to design the school cafeteria system around the needs of the students. To achieve this, they sought the views of 1300 students, lunch workers, teachers and parents to inspire the design of a new lunchtime experience. Students of all ages and from a wide range of cultural backgrounds kept food journals detailing the foods they liked as well as those they ate at home.

The vision for student-centered lunches is designed to support students in making healthy food choices all through their school career, and vary depending on the age of the student . In elementary schools, healthy rituals are established early and developed by increasing student choice as they get older. The Future Dining Experience team is currently designing the built environment of elementary sites in order to allow for a future where students sit together and serve one another food to help foster a greater sense of community.

In middle schools, children can choose where they want to sit from a variety of different zones. There are shared tables and sofas and students can choose to eat alone, outdoors or in a group, and students can influence the type of seating and “zones” offered by the schools. Understanding the school community is key when selecting furniture. Some middle schools can handle soft seating due to strong leadership and student buy in. Others find creative ways to cut them. There is also a grab and go option provided at mobile carts, full meal vending machines and cafe windows so that students can quickly get back to their friends instead of waiting in long lines.

In high school, students are offered various points of sale. As well as the traditional cafeteria, there are mobile carts, cafe windows and vending machines with healthy foods throughout the school. To prepare students for independence after school, IDEO conceptualized a digitally-enabled system for students to pre-order their food online and find out the nutritional value of their lunches, enabling them to make informed and empowered choices about their food. This concept has not come to fruition yet, however the team is still working towards the vision, streamlining operations and improving the technology infrastructure of the Student Nutrition Services department.

The scope of the student-centered cafeteria is not limited to lunchtime. Learning links are made with educational lessons in school gardens. Students are also able to participate in cooking classes led by school partners to learn how to cook many of the meals they eat during the lunch period.

The Future Dining Experience, a grant funded project that is embedded within SFUSD’s Student Nutrition Services department has led the implementation of the design recommendations for the last four years. Designs have been iterated on in order to best support the needs of the students and operate within a large scale institution. The FDE team regularly meets with students and invites the school communities to participate in the design of their spaces. The FDE is always learning from the design experiences and identifying ways the system could be further improved.

Impact & scalability

Impact & Scalability


A Cafeteria Designed by Me is designed around a very human element, researched and
built to create an experience that students would love. The result of this cafeteria is very
much a product of the needs & desires of the users. IDEO sought the views of 1300
students, lunch workers, teachers and parents to inspire the design of a new lunchtime
experience. Students of all ages and from a wide range of cultural backgrounds kept
food journals detailing the foods they liked as well as those they ate at home.


SFUSD have partnered with UC Berkeley to currently study the impact on student
health and wellness of the designs that have been implemented within SFUSD. They
are tracking the impact of the mobile carts, full meal vending machines, teacher
outreach etc. on student health and wellness via surveys, plate waste studies, and BMI
data. There are an abundance of research papers & projects in support of the
importance of healthy food. Here’s a short article summarizing five.


A lot of this process is about connecting with children. While it’s possible to copy the
process, it’s a journey to go through with the students to find out what they want and
need. After the partnership between SFUSD and IDEO, the Future Dining Experience
was created with funding from the Sara and Evan Williams Foundation to figure out how
to bring the vision into reality within the school institution. Over the last four years, the
Future Dining Experience team has worked with Student Nutrition Services, school
communities and departments across the district to improve the meal experience for
students through implementation of dining area redesigns at 18 sites, launching mobile
carts and full meal vending machines at 12 sites and redesigning the menu
development and procurement process. The team is focused on creating equitable,
student centered experiences that prompt joyful eating. Recent tax funding will enable
dining area space redesigns at every school in the district as well as the construction of
5 regional cooking kitchens which will enable scratch cooking and a more responsive

Implementation steps

Who is this for?

Start by understanding who you are designing for. What do they wish for in a dining experience? Conduct user research by interviewing or shadowing students, having students keep a journal of their food preferences, or sitting down and having a meal with them.

Understand the unique needs of students across age groups. Traditionally, lunch looks the same whether you’re in kindergarten or high school, and yet the developmental needs of different grade levels are vastly different. For example, through spending time with students at all grade levels, the IDEO team was able to identify the core needs of different groups for SFUSD. Are these the same or different for your community?

Elementary Student core needs: community and family style, reducing stress of the line.

Middle School Student core needs: emerging choices in food and where to sit.

High Schools Students core needs: independence and choice.

Engage the whole school community

Engage with the community, especially students and families.

● Ask for feedback early and often, creating opportunities to share ideas, sketches, and prototypes with different stakeholder groups, including parents, staff, teachers and even local chefs or public health officials.

● Hold co-design sessions where students and other stakeholders can build on your ideas.

● Establish a platform that enables the community to give feedback and get involved.

Be prepared to face challenges.

The school lunch system is complex and involves various stakeholders, some of whom may be reticent to change. By starting a dialogue and demonstrating the benefits of such a program, IDEO was able to bring stakeholders together during the design and visioning process to make the healthiest choices for students. The inclusion of different parties in the design process gave everyone a sense of ownership.

This change requires time, equipment and resources. SFUSD’s Future Dining Experience team leverages many design workshops with the students and school community to design spaces that have the ability to meet their specific needs. Many of the features are generic across the district, but there are fun opportunities to customize with graphics, colors and a few pieces of furniture.

Be realistic

Exact implementation time would vary from school to school depending on a number of factors such as size of school, operations of the food system, and preferences of the community.

Get realistic about your constraints.

● Consider your region’s policies for food service at educational institutions.

● Perform a kitchen facilities assessment of all school sites to understand the options and dependencies for food preparation and distribution.

● Consider extensions outside of school and potential partners, including partnerships with your food providers, in SFUSD’s case, Revolution Foods.

Identify quick wins, and prototype your ideas collaboratively to build excitement and learn what works.

To reduce lines and give students more time to spend time with their friends, SFUSD prototyped simple lunch carts made of foamcore and recycled materials in order to learn quickly.

Design never ends

It’s important to do several rounds of prototyping before fully committing to any one idea or concept. SFUSD brought over 1300 stakeholders in to conduct a walk-through exhibit of the entire renewed experience and invited them to improve the ideas by adding feedback in real time.

As you implement various concepts, continue to spend time with students and listen to stakeholders to understand how you might iterate and improve on your design.

Spread of the innovation

loading map...