Pathways to Excellence in School Food: The Dining Experience

July 30, 2013

How do schools create an inviting dining ambience that encourages healthy interaction and healthy eating? Here, we learn one school’s story.

School food programs across the country are trying to reinvent themselves in response to the critical health needs of students. Over the past year, Healthy Schools Campaign has been working with the Chicago Public Schools to develop a comprehensive plan to achieve excellence in their school meal program. This plan centers around 10 interconnected pathways that are critical to success of every school food program.

This week, we highlight efforts to improve the dining experience. Click here to learn more about the 10 pathways to excellence in school food and to read about Chicago Public Schools’ action plans for achieving excellence in school nutrition..

When students at Milton Brunson Math & Science Academy, on Chicago’s Near North Side, walk into the lunchroom, they are met with an exciting, inviting space. The cafeteria was recently repainted, with signs around the space in bright colors: lime green, orange and yellow. The students come in excited before they even have a chance to taste the food, explains Lunchroom Manager Brenda Grisby.

This cafeteria makeover is part of a broader effort to improve the presentation and serving of food and to create a more pleasant dining experience for students. To do this, schools are being asked to meet more than 300 different standards in operations, cooking and customer service. Brunson is one of the first schools in Chicago to meet this standard and receive recognition as a Dining Center of Excellence.

In addition to making the space itself more welcoming, the facilities allow for food to be presented in a manner students will find appealing. Cafeteria presentation of the fruits and vegetables motivates students to make healthier choices and generates excitement about school lunch. Taking a page from recent research connecting lunch line design to healthy choices, workers consider fruit and vegetable presentation, food item layout and pricing strategies to encourage students to choose healthier options. “They see how the produce looks prior to deciding on what they’re going to get,” Brunson Principal Carol Diane Wilson says. “It’s displayed so beautifully and is so inviting.”

Grisby says a key to the success of the dining center at Brunson has been providing an excellent customer experience. She says it’s all about good customer service, with a smile. They welcome students in by name. Attention to detail is essential—uniforms, hairnets, gloves and an adherence to the recipe. But even more than that, the cafeteria staff members offer service and presentation with a professional restaurant in mind, excited to prepare the food for the students.

To encourage participation and healthy eating, and to encourage students to try new foods, lunchroom staff will even invite students who are confused about what they would like to eat to try a small sample of a few different menu items before making a decision. “My team, they’re excited about preparing the food for students,” Grisby says. “They prepare it to where they would eat it. They treat these kids like their kids.”

Dr. Wilson has called the changes “a blessing,” and continues to receive positive feedback from students. Recently, while taking a brief leave of absence from the school, Dr. Wilson received a text message from a whole class who wanted to thank her for the salad bar. She says in determining the next steps, she would like to conduct a survey of students and staff to see how to continue to make improvements. “This has really been the highlight of our school, the whole cafeteria’s transformation and the different options for the students,” Dr. Wilson says. “It’s been beautiful.”

Thanks to Dr. Wilson and the Brunson community for sharing their story with us! Read more about the report and download it here.