How do you get kids to eat lunch at school?

Communal eating school lunch

That’s the question the design firm IDEO has set out to answer for the San Francisco Unified School District. And it’s a problem that affects students across the country.A good lunch helps keep students focused during the school day, and for some kids, it may be the only full meal they get. However, students don’t seem to want to pick up the spork. In the San Francisco school district, nearly 60% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, but just over half of those kids are taking advantage of it. Only around 40% of all students eat lunch at school on a regular basis.

So the San Francisco Unified School District called in the big guns: IDEO, which has created hundreds of innovative designs, including the original Apple mouse. Over the course of five months, IDEO designers hung out in the cafeteria to learn everything there was to know about kids, food and school lunch.

Ordering school lunch on a tablet

IDEO came up with a bunch of cool possible solutions, including family-style meals and ordering via tablet. But perhaps the coolest thing IDEO did in the course of its research is also the simplest: ask the kids what they want.

Listening to students about how they want to eat lunch

From the Wired article on IDEO’s new lunch experience:

“IDEO realized that despite the schools’ inherent focus on student well-being, no one had asked kids what was important to them. ‘We wanted to approach it from understanding the people that this whole system is organized to serve,’ says Coe Leta Stafford, a design director at IDEO who worked on the project.”

Listening to the students gave IDEO insight into the real reasons kids were skipping lunch. For example, the middle school students told the designers that they wanted a space where they could do more than just eat, so IDEO suggested an activity hub with cozy seating areas that the kids themselves will redesign twice a year.

IDEO middle school lunchroom

The high schoolers told IDEO how busy they are, so IDEO came up with a system where students can pick up grab-and-go meals from an express line and RSVP online for lunch.

IDEO high school lunchroom

All those cool ideas were made possible because IDEO took the time to listen. When you need to communicate or solve a problem, imitate the smart folks at IDEO and listen first. Listening is the key to coming up with solutions that aren’t just cool, but actually work. And that’s rarer than a kid happily eating a school lunch.

For more on IDEO’s proposal, check out the Wired article, or you can read the whole proposal here.

Images: IDEO and SFUSD via Wired