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A cafeteria
designed for me

How IDEO Helped the San Francisco
Unified School District Redesign its Food System
How IDEO Helped the SFUSD Redesign its Food System

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Imagine, for a moment,
that you’re back in 8th grade.

Having preordered your lunch online the night before,
you grab a brown bag from the rolling cart — no lines.

Your lunch is fresh, as it’s been sourced from local suppliers
and cooked in a communal kitchen.

You and your friends devour it on beanbags.
On the way out you pick up a dinner kit for your family.

This is what school lunch could be. But it’s not.

The current system is under strain







San Francisco’s Unified School District had managed to serve, but had limited capacity for customer service. Students were waiting in long lines, rushing to finish, and eating in makeshift lunchrooms. Many kids simply opted out and headed off campus with friends, or chose to not eat at all. Student Nutrition Services was running a $2+ million deficit. The Sara and Evan Williams Foundation saw that the system needed help, so they brokered a collaboration between IDEO and SFUSD.


In an effort to improve the situation, the district hired Revolution Foods, a caterer that serves some of the highest nutritional meals in the nation. But when the lunch bell rang, many students weren’t showing up. The problem, IDEO discovered, wasn’t so much about the food itself, but rather about how it was being served—the design of the lunch experience.

In a world in which students are used to expressing their opinions on social media, they had no voice in shaping their food experience.

IDEO and SFUSD set out to change that—to design a truly student-centered school lunch. The team worked alongside more than 1,300 students, parents, union leaders, nutrition staff, board commissioners, principals, teachers, and community groups to create a better cafeteria experience.

To be sure the recommended designs would address the operational deficit, the team developed a robust business model, considering thousands of data points, like the cost-per-meal of a delivery truck route and where the ketchup was placed in the cafeteria. They took federal, state, and local regulations into account. The data-driven model, which the District has now adopted, informed the design at every stage.

Elementary School


Age 10

“I’m in the 5th grade. My favorite activity is soccer. Things that make me happy are my dog and cat. When I grow up I want to be an animal rights activist.”

Listen to Bridgette

At lunch, Bridgette likes to share food with her friends. It makes the cafeteria much more fun.

Serving Each Other This is what school lunch could look like

The elementary school lunchroom
teaches kids to serve each other

Community Kitchen

The community kitchen connects SFUSD with the San Francisco food community through menu planning, staff training, and chef training programs.

Communal Eating

In elementary schools, students sit around round tables, learn to serve one another, and discover foods together. Staff serve in courses off of a cart. With food served in stages, students eat more of every course and they no longer have to wait in line.

Online Portal

A central crowd-funded platform enables the greater community to connect with school food programs.

Learning Layer

Food in the cafeteria is integrated with the learning curriculum. Students receive a richer experience by learning about the food ecosystem through gardening programs, visits to local farms, and composting facilities.

Middle School


Age 12

“I’m in 7th grade. My favorite TV show is Robot and Monster. If I could be any superhero, my power would be to be invisible. When I grow up I want to be a professional soccer player.”

Listen to Diego

Kids in middle school are exploring their indepen­dence, Diego wants to grab lunch quickly and hang out wherever he chooses.

Grab-n-Go Meals No waiting in line

The middle school lunchroom
gives older kids more control

Central Warehouse & Local Sourcing

A central warehouse enables SFUSD to source local, fresh, and diverse food for our middle and high schools and manage inventory centrally.

Space Renovation

Each semester or once a year, groups of students get to redesign the cafeteria. SFUSD can partner with local furniture suppliers and space planning companies to upgrade cafeteria spaces in middle and high schools.

Dinner Kits

Student Nutrition extends its offerings beyond school meals and taps into new sources of revenue. By being a member of the SFUSD dinner program, students can pick up take-home meal kits equipped with all the ingredients and recipes needed to make a nutritious family dinner.

High School


Age 16

“I’m in 12th grade. Something that makes me happy is good food and good company. My favorite activity is exploring various cultures through food. I cook a lot! When I grow up I want to be an anesthesiologist and an executive chef…at home!”

Listen to Joyce

Joyce and her friends want to know what they’re eating and manage their own menu.

Online Portal Gives high school kids more control over their meals and budget

The high school lunchroom prepares
teenagers for independence

Smart Meal Technology

An interactive system enables students to pre-order meals, provide feedback, set dietary preferences, and learn about food. This generates data that makes the entire system more efficient and tailored. An integrated loyalty program rewards students for healthy choices.

Regional Kitchen & Centralized Prep

Existing kitchens can be renovated and production centralized for SFUSD-produced food at our middle and high schools.

Vending Machines & Mobile Carts

Improve participation in high schools and middle schools by placing vending machines and mobile carts at key hot spots. Students get convenient access to nutritious reimbursable meals or healthy a la carte items.

“During our collaboration with IDEO, we engaged with students in a way where they were the experts about their experience and we were the learners. We plan to further improve our other school systems by implementing this approach more often.”


Orla O'Keeffe

Realizing a financially sustainable vision for the cafeteria of the future will take time, of course. IDEO designed a business model that rolls out in phases and scales up over time.

In September 2013, the San Francisco Board of Education expressed unanimous enthusiasm for the redesign proposed by IDEO and the school district, clearing the path for the new vision of student-centered lunch to take root.