How School Facilities Support Healthy School Food

May 27, 2015

Meeting the national nutritional standards set forth by 2010’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is more than just changing the food served in school cafeterias — sometimes it’s the physical spaces themselves that need changing.

But can you really encourage children to eat healthier food and lead more active lives through interior design and architecture? Yes, says Matthew Trowbridge, an associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and a senior research fellow at the U.S. Green Building Council.

It follows then, that interior design and architecture can work also against healthy eating and physical activity. That might be the case with some current school kitchen facilities. “If you’re trying to run a new type of policy toward school food, the school building and facility is going to act to prohibit or catalyze change,” Trowbridge said.

He said the current design of school kitchen facilities reflects old policy. “Most of the schools we have right now are set up around school policies and are much more about frozen food and factory line model,” he said. “Now, we’re asking schools to try and take on scratch cooking. A lot of times that’s hard.”

It’s especially hard when kitchens lack the appropriate equipment to prepare fresh food — such as knives and serving utensils. According to research from Pew Charitable Trusts, 88 percent of schools are missing at least one piece of equipment — knives, food processors, utility carts, scales — that would allow them to more easily prepare fresh food. In addition, more than half of schools say they need infrastructure improvements — space, electrical capacity, plumbing, ventilation — to meet requirements.

In addition to having basic equipment, school cafeteria and kitchen environments can be changed to support healthy eating, Trowbridge said. To test this theory, he worked with VMDO Architects to redesign a 1950s-era elementary school in rural Virginia based on a set of principles called the Healthy Eating Design Guidelines for School Architecture. The guidelines provide a practical set of spatially organized and theory-based strategies for making school environments more friendly to healthy eating by optimizing physical resources and learning spaces. The design guidelines cover 10 areas of the school food environment — including the cafeteria, kitchen and garden — and five core healthy eating design principles.

The school redesign in Virginia features an open cafeteria where students can see food preparation, which makes the food staff much more relatable to the students, Trowbridge said. The cafeteria also features a lab-style classroom where students can learn about the items they’re eating. You can watch a video about the project here.

But schools don’t have to undergo major renovations to improve the design of a school cafeteria. Trowbridge says simple things like moving vending machines — even if the candy machines have been completely removed — to an inconvenient location so students have to really seek them out. Another simple change is adding small signs to water fountains to make them stand out more can actually encourage students to drink more water. “It doesn’t always have to be massive changes to the school,” Trowbridge said.

To help schools meet their equipment needs, the USDA recently announced $25 million for kitchen equipment upgrades. The USDA provides funding to states, which then award grants to districts — giving priority to school where 50 percent or more of the enrolled students are eligible for free or reduced price meals.

Although $25 million is a small drop in the bucket compared to what school districts around the country likely need, every little bit helps. At Healthy Schools Campaign, we know that school districts are striving to meet the nutritional requirements — and 95 percent across the country already are — and the more ideas to help them do it — whether related to meal planning, staff training or interior design — the better.