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.
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.