Service design in school lunch programs leaves poor teens hungry

From the New York Times “Free Lunch Isn’t Cool, So Some Students Go Hungry”:

Most elementary-school children like free lunches, school officials say, but by the time they enter middle school, social status intervenes. And at lunchtime, as students choose with whom to associate, many students from poor families either pay cash or go hungry if they do not bring lunches from home.

“I know kids need to eat but they don’t want to be identified with free food,” said Kenneth Block, a track coach and security guard who oversees the lunch shift at Balboa High.

Attention to the matter in San Francisco came almost by chance.

Last year, Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, director of occupational and environmental health for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, was campaigning to improve the nutritional value of food in schools when he encountered the two-tier system.

Dr. Bhatia grew up in Oklahoma City, where he said he experienced and observed discrimination in the public schools, including students hurling insults at his Indian heritage. He said he was shocked to find that students in San Francisco were facing similar challenges in the lunch line.

Dr. Bhatia said he decided that “somebody has to speak up,” and began pressing the school district to make changes. “There were feasible alternatives,” he said.

Dr. Bhatia proposes giving the same food to all students and having them pay with debit cards, a change that could cost the school district an estimated $1 million.

What would it look like if policy makers included design perspectives and employed design tools in creating policy interventions? Designer friends working with schools today tell us that iterative testing and prototyping in US public schools can be incredibly difficult. For good reason, there are regulations to prevent kids from being exposed to dangerous or ineffective experiences. We hear rumors that privately funded charter schools have a bit more leeway.

Know of any good design work going in the educational sphere? Tip us off at blog (at)

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