November 24, 2013

Wichita schools to discuss cafeteria makeovers

Think “school cafeteria,” and you probably envision long tables in white or gray, attached benches, fluorescent lighting and plain walls.

Think “school cafeteria,” and you probably envision long tables in white or gray, attached benches, fluorescent lighting and plain walls.

The style is basic, utilitarian, institutional. Call it 20th-century Public School Lunchroom.

Wichita school officials say it’s time to modernize cafeterias – particularly at middle and high schools – and they plan to start soon.

On Monday, the Wichita school board will vote on a plan to spend up to $250,000 from the district’s nutrition services budget for cafeteria design services, furniture and equipment intended to “increase participation in meal service and improve services to students.”

“For some time, we have been looking at how we can beautify, improve, enhance the look of our school cafeterias,” said Darren Muci, the district’s director of operations.

“Some of them have too much of an institutional look about them and really doesn’t provide for what we think is an appropriate eating environment.”

The district plans to contract with Palmer Hamilton, a Wisconsin-based firm known for its work designing dining spaces for schools, universities, hospitals and other businesses.

Muci said the district hopes to rework dining spaces at most high schools and several middle schools. At some high schools, he said, students are known to avoid the cafeteria altogether, opting instead to eat meals elsewhere on campus or, for upperclassmen, off campus.

At Heights and North High, Muci said, “We think we can enhance the lunch experiences, but also perhaps turn the cafeteria into more usable space for meetings, presentations, things of that nature.”

Palmer Hamilton consultants work with school officials to design cafeterias that accommodate more students with increased seating and better traffic flow. Modern school dining spaces have more of a bistro feel, with round or high-top tables, wall murals, window treatments and menu boards that reflect the school’s mascot and colors.

According to the company’s website, schools with redesigned lunch rooms have seen meal-service revenue increase 24 percent to 74 percent.

Over the past several years, following a massive overhaul of the government-subsidized school meal program, Wichita schools have instituted numerous changes in their cafeterias.

Meals feature more fruits and vegetables and less salt and fat. Snack bars offer healthier snacks. Elementary students get more choices about what goes on their trays. Even delivery pizza – one of the most popular lunch entrees at Wichita middle and high schools before it was dropped last year – returned to cafeterias this fall in a healthier version, with crusts rich in whole grains.

The menus are changing, Muci said, but most cafeterias look the same as they did decades ago. Making them brighter and more welcoming might spur more students to reconsider school lunches, he said.

“If the food’s bad, it doesn’t matter where they’re eating. We know that,” Muci said. “It’s a combined effort.

“So we’re working hard in the kitchen, and we just think it’s time to look outside the kitchen as well. It’s all a part of that total” dining experience.

The Wichita school board will meet at 6 p.m. Monday in the North High lecture hall, 1437 Rochester.

The board also will consider moving ahead with three more bond projects: additions to Jardine Middle School and Riverside Elementary, and a long-awaited renovation of the North High auditorium.

Board members also will get an update on the district’s renewed focus on literacy, including a preview of measures planned for the second semester.

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