Our team aims to learn about the factors and actors that influence school menu planning. We have an interest in animal-based food products, such as meat, seafood, pork, and dairy. At the start of the course, we learned from an expert with Greenfield Project, whose work includes advocating for sustainable livestock programs, the humane treatment of animals, and working to promote related government policy changes.
We chose institutional food services because it represents a significant opportunity to influence food purchasing and we thought that it might be a meaningful area for Greenfield Project. We narrowed our focus on K-12 school menu planning because of its connection to wicked problems (such as hunger, poverty, and education), and our desire to use design research to immerse ourselves within a specific cultural context.
Why design research?
The primary goal of design research is problem finding. Throughout our fieldwork, we’ve strived to:
- Understand the various people involved with school menu planning and what they do, why they do it, and how they feel about it.
- Cultivate empathy with our participants. This is an important component for me: as a married man who has chosen not to have children, as a professional who has spent 20 years in marketing and spending the majority of my time with other professionals, etc. So I have not spent much time before now thinking about school menus, childhood nutrition, etc.
- Curate stories from our research findings and data to share with others.
- Document data, artifacts, photos, etc. that will enable us to move into synthesis (problem understanding) at the appropriate time in the course so that we can make meaning from our research.
Our design research has been generative, and we have approached it with a beginner’s mindset. Our research methods in the field included:
- In-depth and ad hoc interviews
- Subject matter expert interviews
- Contextual inquiry
- Secondary research
While we are still recruiting and completing interviews, I have a sense that the design research fieldwork has given us: insights to better define the problem and opportunity with school menu planning; inspiration to identify potential areas of opportunity for school menu planning; and, information assembled over a short period so that we can intelligently talk about school menu planning.
About a boy and his baked potato
Throughout our fieldwork, we’ve heard a variety of stories about creating, testing, and managing school menu programs. There are many constraints and limitations (such as federal, state, and local regulations, budget, facilities, staffing, software applications, nutrition, etc.) that people must manage with school menu programs. And of course, a component of school menu planning is children—their food desires, habits, and nutrition needs.
Working within those constraints can be a challenge. Laura (not real name) has been a chef for more than 18-years and has spent most of her career in restaurant and catering kitchens. After starting a family a few years ago, her interests in childhood nutrition took root and grew into her current role as the food services director for a large network of charter schools. She’s responsible for feeding thousands of children breakfast, lunch, and snack, and she manages an annual budget of more than $4M.
Laura loves to develop creative menu items. And for her, creativity means delicious and nutritious food that children will eat, that her staff can prepare within the allotted time and that her kitchen facilities can accommodate. One of her best resources for ideas is the student. It can be a challenge though—sometimes the ideas of students sound simple, but because of constraints she has a difficult time implementing their suggestions.
Once a young boy in first grade had an idea to share with Laura. She could tell that he had been thinking about this question for days (and perhaps weeks) as he mustered the courage to walk up to her and say, “Hi. You work in the school cafeteria, don’t you?” Laura leaned down to make eye contact as he went on, “I love baked potatoes. Why don’t we have them for lunch?” Laura was moved as they discussed the merits of baked potatoes and she learned more about other foods that he likes.
Laura went back to her office and set out to solve a problem: how might she add baked potatoes to the school menu? She goes on to tell us about the quandary: “It’s complicated. Let’s see, first I’ll need to source 2,000 whole potatoes, then wash the 2,000 potatoes, the staff will need to place 2,000 potatoes on cooking trays and bake them for the required time, and then the front of the house needs to keep them warm for serving,” and this list goes on.
It appears too complicated and time-consuming for the school kitchen. Laura seems crestfallen that she’s not able to include the beloved baked potato on her menu. After all, here’s a young student that wants to eat a vegetable and she’s faced with numerous constraints.
Laura’s still thinking about it months and months later: “how can I serve that brave little boy a baked potato?” There were wins along the way. She was able to add another of his suggestions (pizza fingers!). And yet, she’s still thinking about the little boy and his baked potato.
- Daily debrief. In class, we learned that daily debrief sessions allow team members to share early observations and highlights from the work they’ve done. During our planning stage, we committed to day-of and worse case, next day debrief sessions. With competing demands and the challenges of time management, we find ourselves with a backlog of debriefing sessions. The next time I will make daily debrief sessions a priority.
- Preparation, preparation, preparation. We knew that we wanted to talk with students to learn about their experiences with school food programs and knew it would be difficult to get interviews. When an unexpected opportunity presented itself, we had not thoroughly prepared, so we improvised. Improvisation can be our friend and our worst enemy. The next time I will endeavor to be more prepared and practiced.
- Show me more. During our planning and throughout fieldwork, as a team, we wanted to make data come alive with visual images to help us better understand the problem area and to share with others. We’ve completed several visual images (such as a model of the various actors involved with the problem area and sketches of the school cafeteria), and yet find ourselves with fewer images than we’d like as we near the completion of fieldwork and prepare for synthesis. The next time I will make creating visuals throughout fieldwork a priority.