Over the last couple of decades the educational experience that students and their parents expect and demand has grown in complexity. The environments that we create for learning to happen has likewise been reimagined. The notion of choice and independence, flexibility, transparency and student engagment have all influenced what we as designers and architects use to reshape the spaces in our schools. Libraries have evolved into learning commons. Hallways have become an extension of the learning environment and gymnasiums have become fitness centers that instill lifelong wellness. Everything seems to have changed………everything, that is, except what our kids are eating in school, how it is delivered to them and where they go to eat. Now even that is changing.

Why is this Important to Schools?

The facts are plentiful. ½ of the public school students are from low income families. Students receiving free or reduced lunch through the National School Lunch Program has almost quintupled since 1970. One in six children go hungry each day even as the childhood obesity rate in this country has increased by 300% in the last 30 years. All this occurring while knowing that healthy meals raises student achievement on average by 4% points (per a study conducted by the California State Department of Education & Economics at University of California Berkley). As Scott Reitano, president of Reitano Design Group, has stated on multiple occasions, “ It is not about serving children healthier school lunches. This is about enticing children to eat healthier.”

Who is the Audience?

To understand how we can address the situation, we must first get to know our audience. So who are they? As millennials have progressed into the workforce Generation Z has taken their place in the grade school system. Born between the mid ‘90’s and mid ‘00’s this group represents a ¼ of the US population with purchasing power exceeding $40B. Living through the Great Recession, they are a frugal bunch that has come to leverage technology in a more social and creative way than their predecessors. They are nomads who can work anywhere, seek comfort locally, think sustainably and passionately support businesses promoting social responsibility.

On their heels come the next generation is Gen Alpha. Born after 2010 (the same year as the IPAD). They are expected to be the most formally educated, tech-savy generation in history. More than their predecessors, Gen Alpha expects what they are seeking on the spot (primarily prompted by their command of the digital realm). In today’s Disney+ world, scheduled access to resources and information is obsolete. Flex-time and all-day, healthy food options are a must.

How Can Space Help?

In the spirit of understanding your audience, school officials and designers can begin with a recognition and understanding of where today’s kids are drawn to. The one-size-fits-all approach of McDonalds has given way to Starbucks, Chipotle and often independent, unique destinations. from which to draw inspiration. These establishments rely heavily on demonstrating a brand identity through the visual experience as much as the actual products The insight we can derive from retailers is that space and presentation of product makes a difference in how consumers spend their dollars.

Positioning Matters

We all make dining decisions by eating with our eyes. Displaying the healthiest options as the first food choices students see increases the likelihood that those specific items will be noticed, purchased and consumed more often than those items that are positioned remotely. Just as students are more engaged in class when they have choice between activities, providing options between colorful, sliced vegetables and fruit also increases likelihood of purchase.

Presentation Matters

Being able to see the preparation of food also conveys the appearance of freshness and customization so critical to the young audience. As the back of the house moves to the front of the house more square footage is provided in the serveries and less for traditional kitchen functions inclusive of storage.

Lighting is a critical part to displaying the merchandise and grabbing students’ attention. A color rendering index greater than 90 means food look new and fresh in lieu of tired and stale.

Service and Time Considerations

Although scheduling considerations are receiving greater scrutiny in schools across the country, there are still peak times of food consumption that must be planned for. Graphics and messaging provide an important design element in the eating and dining experience that not only help direct students to items of their choice but also contribute to the overall ambience and vibe of the space.

Furthermore, the overall space layout can reduce the transaction time. Long queuing lines where students have to funnel through all food offerings are wasteful of time and space. Individual food stations, much like the highly popular food halls in urban centers, provide a model for efficient and customized meals.

Mobile ordering,similar to what students have grown accustomed to when dining out,is finding its way into the discussion of modernizing the food service experience in schools. Greater efficiency in this arena increases food distribution in students’ packed daily schedule and also dictates a new set of behaviors and architectural features that must be synthesized into the design of these spaces. Although this is a relatively recent phenomena, it is not hard to imagine serveries taking queues from establishments like Panera to capitalize on digital ordering techniques which help sequence students through the purchasing experience.

Places to Eat

How students get their meals is one part of the equation. Where students eat is another. Densley packed, mess hall tables are being replaced with a variety of options. Booth seating, high-top tables and perimeter counters all provide students greater choice. Some students find the social pressure of lunch to be one of the most stressful times of the day due to the often overhwhelming size and noise level of most cafeterias. Effective space planning can create a happier, less stressed-filled experience by establishing smaller zones with different sound levels and group sizes. Even locations for solo diners to eat without drawing scrutiny can make a difference to a student’s well being.

All the same considerations that go into the purchasing experience apply to the places students eat. Choice, comfort and ambience set the tone for success of these designed spaces. Colors, patterns and even music can make these spaces an oasis from the rigors of adjacent instructional rooms.


As school districts become more sensitive to environmental considerations and students’ demand more control of the forces that effect their lives, over-sized, energy hog warewashing accommodations are being downsized. Food service programs are usually large waste producers in facilities. Providing better tasting options is the first step in reducing waste. For the remaining waste, students expect recycling and composting stations and often self monitor and correct peers on proper usage. Waste disposal seems minor in the overall space, but is another element which further enhances the choices students are given to control their experience.

Final Thoughts

More and more, students are migrating to other parts of their schools during the lunch hour. Multi-tasking isn’t just for adults. Eating on the go, during or between classes is no longer the exception. How school leaders choose to acknowledge and address this evolving set of circumstances varies by District. Whether it is adjusting the bell schedules that organize a students’ day or creating casual space(s) for spontaneous social collisions and nuanced study habits to occur….. the fact remains, how kids purchase food, where and where they eat it all can have a significant impact on their educational experience. The challenge is set. Its time for us to respond.