School Food Lunchroom Research : A Reflection

In order to learn about the factors and actors influencing the school food menu planning process more in depth, the team decided to start interviewing the people that make things happen: school food staff.

We started with our first recommendation – KANE (*fictitious name) charter school and their school food staff. After we spoke with Laura, the Food Service Director, we felt that there were still some missing pieces. Struggles in the food service area – like regulations, refundable meals, participation rates, free or refundable meals, co-ops, TDA, USDA, counter-intuitive software tools – were things that showed significant and latent concerns, but had a scope too big to effectively conduct design research for. Where to begin?

We were stuck.

But we knew we were on to something.

So we decided to continue immersing ourselves into the KANE school system for most of our research, speaking with teaching staff, lunch room staff, students, parents, etc. As we honed in our research, we realized there is an opportunity to learn more about the experience of KANE’s school food service staff.

Which is where we first spoke to Martha.

Martha is an Executive Chef at KANE. The first day we talked to her for our contextual interview. She’s sitting at the table across from us, she has a bright compelling smile and an alert gaze, her phone is close to her at all times, “this is so important” she says, as she holds it up for us to see, communication, as in constant texting and phone calls between the Food Production Director and her, is key in her role – “that, and e-mails”. With every answer Martha gives, you can tell that she’s passionate about food, and not only that, but about the children that she cooks for every day.

“We’re feeding other people’s children”, she mentions. Her and her team need to have that in mind every time they design a menu. In her role, Martha’s goal is to provide enough options for kids in KANE to eat good food and develop healthy habits. Martha likes to believe that having children practice at making good food choices, will push them to make other good choices in life – “like going to college”. 

As the conversation unfolds during the contextual interview, we realize that most of Martha’s food related memories take her back to her childhood. Growing up in a Mexican home, bold flavors and textures that characterize traditional mexican dishes, are her everyday inspiration when creating menus. Martha believes that kids are more receptive when the meals her team makes have an eclectic flavor – most of the kids from KANE are from hispanic backgrounds – when this happens, the participation rate is usually higher. When the participation is up, Martha feels accomplished: That means kids have their bellies full. That also means that government refunds will be higher.

After we wrapped up our first conversation with Martha (we met a second time for a participatory research session a few days later), my interest for school food lunch programs grew bigger than it was before. Her passion for her work is compelling and evident. You could tell by the smiling look on her face when speaking about her daily struggle: to create a food menu that tastes good, looks attractive, is healthy, is easy to serve, makes kids happy, and is refundable.

All of this just made me wonder – are all Executive Chefs this passionate about what they do?

As we wrap up these two weeks of user interviews, there’s a couple of reflections about the methods we’ve used that I’d like to share:

After our first round of interviews, I learned not to start our research with such a broad focus. Challenges are always good, but not when you have such a tight time constraint. By starting with such a broad focus initially made us think that we could conquer the world and talk to everyone. But as the days went by, and agendas got synced, and recruiting calls not getting returned, we realized it was easier said than done. This is one of the underlying reasons that made us focus on KANE’s food service in particular, which has been pretty insightful on its own, but it would have been nice to have more time to interview and observe the comparable participants and systems in other schools.