How can you increase school cafeteria participation in school lunch programs?

To understand how to increase the participation, we have to understand why many students do not want to be there.  Many Middle School, Junior High Schools and High Schools have very low cafeteria participation rates in our school lunch programs.  Some as low as 30% of the student population, with quite a few as low as 40%. Even at closed campuses. So why is it that there is a reluctance amongst our students to participate and gather in the lunch room?  The reasons vary a little bit from district to district, but there are four common themes: The Space, The Food, Open Campuses and the Stigma attached by eating lunch in the cafeteria.

Let’s face it, many school cafeterias are just not cool. Students want a place to hang out that is fun, contemporary and promotes school unity. They want a place that is modern, stylish and is easy to hang out with their friends in small groups. Creating a café style or Starbucks™ style space is what our kids are attracted to. Giving your space a face lift adding pub height tables, pub height counters, stools and booths is probably the most important factor in increasing participation. Design a space that is conducive to small groups and add some art and graphics that promote school unity and they will come.

Most students don’t want to leave the school to go get lunch. They just don’t typically have the time, but if the space is a cool place to hang out with their friends and the food is marginal, they just won’t participate.

Another benefit to creating a fresh lunch room, is that it eliminates the stigma of free and reduced kids. No student wants to feel like the cafeteria is where all the poor kids go. Whether they are rich or poor, if that’s the case, they just won’t go. So, by creating a contemporary space where kids want to gather and hang out with friends, you eliminate a serious issue in our schools.

The cost to give your cafeteria a makeover can cost between $30,000 and $150,000, depending on how many students you serve, whether it’s just a cosmetic change and how much new furniture you purchase. Most schools see this investment paid for within 18 months in increased revenue; some in less than 12 months.  One word of caution, don’t try to design the space yourself. Creating a space the kids won’t like can be a waste of a lot of money. Hire a firm with experience in designing school cafeterias.  It’s well worth it in the long run.

Jeff Schreiner

V.P. Sales & Marketing Palmer Hamilton

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