Making Food Cool for School…

On Sunday, November 10, the San Francisco Chronicle had a piece in the Opinion section about the San Francisco Unified School District’s new vision for food.  Of course, that may seem like a tired subject that’s be rehashed over and over as efforts are expended to get kids to eat more healthy.


Photo by Nicholas Zurcher/Ideo

What we found interesting was the Ideo angle.  The school district partnered with Ideo on taking innovative approaches to student nutrition.


It all started with Ideo responding to the school district’s request for proposal (RFP) which they noticed was “largely focused on labor and facilities assessments.”  Thinking about the situation, Ideo decided to reframe the discussion.

Sandy Speicher, an associate partner at Ideo, explains: “We had a conversation with the district leadership and said, ‘What if, instead of framing it in terms of equipment and budget, we create an experience that the students choose and thrive within?’ “

Now that’s thinking out of the box!

The timing was right too as the SFUSD was receptive.  Said Orla O’Keeffe, the district’s executive director of policy and operations, “Ideo helped us get out of our adult way – to shift from being systems-centered to actually being student-centered.”

The Virtual Meeting Place / Community Kitchen:

It was explained that in order to safeguard against exacerbating inequality among the students, Ideo has helped the school district imagine district-wide infrastructure that might build missing entry points for well-intentioned “foodie” San Franciscans. People want to help but don’t know how.

  • One suggestion was to create a “community portal” – an online platform that would allow local citizens to offer donations including food, lessons on food preparation, money for specific food needs, etc. The imagined portal would match altruistic citizens with schools that need help the most, as well as those that have the capacity to integrate the donations into existing programs.
  • Another was to have dynamic off-campus space where food entrepreneurs can incubate new businesses (like La Cocina, a San Francisco nonprofit that helps mostly women from communities of color and immigrant communities start small businesses); local foodies can influence school menu planning and meal development; and kids can learn about and begin to train for careers in the culinary arts.

Can it Move Beyond Theoretical?

The gang was very excited about the potential here.  We feel that SFUSD could set an awesome example for the rest of the school districts throughout the United States (and beyond), if they could move swiftly to implement things Ideo proposed.



We especially were heartened to see the kids’ suggestions (scroll down to the end of the online post).

After extensive interviews, Ideo found that kids care about feeling heard and respected by adults, and about the capacity for pleasure and learning in food. In other words, it turns out that kids are not so different from adults in terms of what they desire out of a dining experience.

Here are just a few of the ideas aimed at making school food a hipper proposition for San Francisco’s public-school students:

— Today’s cafeterias are industrialized and generic spaces. Instead, create spaces that are inviting and personalized by students and local artists.

— Renovate kitchens so kids have places to host cooking clubs and get culinary skills that might help them make a little cash outside of school.

— Cut the waiting time by creating express lines and increasing grab-and-go options for multitasking students.

— Encourage students to submit recipes online that the rest of the school community then votes on. Winning recipes get made and sold on site, fostering the dreams of budding chefs.


Photo by Nicholas Zurcher/Ideo

All great ideas.  We hope this project can get some traction!


You can learn more about Ideo here.  Fast Company did a story about them that’s worth a read.



Worth noting:  Ideo has a Food & Beverage team that spends considerable time talking with people about how they make food decisions. They also observe their behaviors.

One of their projects, Top Chops — is a hands-on cooking adventure that builds up kids’ confidence in the kitchen as they learn new skills and work towards becoming Top Chop master chefs.  A broader objective was to come up with a way to help kids be healthier and make better decisions around food and being active.
Clearly this is an area Ideo is passionate about and all the more reason that the SFUSD program should be implemented without delay with key learnings noted.



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