10 Insights into Designing Access to Food in San Francisco Schools

A participatory design sprint co-led by Design At Business, San Francisco Unified School District, and Student Nutrition Services

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. Virginia Woolf

Co-written by Kursat Ozenc, Deepa Iyer, Laura Pickel, Angela McKee

We are design thinking practitioners with backgrounds in design, education, and engineering, who believe in giving back to the community. Design at Business, a network of change makers accelerating Design Thinking across large enterprises worldwide, facilitates projects to give back to the community through design. In this post, we’d like to share one of those projects, namely, San Francisco Unified School District’s (SFUSD) School Lunch Redesign Project. Let us take you through a brief journey that highlights our planning, experiences, and learnings.


In the summer of 2017, the Design at Business (DatB) community in North America identified an opportunity to create social impact through design doing, when Angela McKee-Brown, Director of the San Francisco Unified School District’s (SFUSD) Future Dining Experience initiative, shared her work redesigning the school food system. Members instantly connected to the topic and signed up to help Angela re-imagine the dining experience for today’s students.

The project came to fruition in March 2018. We held an immersive workshop March 5th–9th using a design sprint approach, with a team made up of DatB members, Student Nutrition Services (SNS), SFUSD, and a senior class at Mission High School in San Francisco.

Sprint Setup & Method

We blended d.sprint and participatory design methodologies to scope the food system challenge with many moving parts.

First, we worked closely with Angela (Angie) on sprint planning. From the beginning, we wanted to work with students, as well as with stakeholders, using a participatory design mindset. We thought about running the session in one of our DatB members’ offices, but realized that the best way to include students and other stakeholders would be to run the sprint in their respective locations. This led us to choose the school and the partner office sites.

Further, while creating the five-day arc and each day’s detailed plan, we blended participatory design with design sprint methodologies. This helped us to understand, in enough depth and breadth, a challenge like school food systems. We also digested prior work that was done by SFUSD and IDEO in 2013 to ensure that our scoping didn’t overlap with it, while also leveraging learnings from the initial implementation. In forming our sprint team, we recruited designers from a diverse set of backgrounds, including SAP, Wells Fargo, Capital One, Stanford Legal Design Lab, and Youtube. The group split into two teams, together with SNS and SFUSD.

On our first day of the sprint, we set a long term goal and measures of success with input from SFUSD and SNS members, thanks to the Start at the End exercise. This served as our north star and motivated us to scope the design sprint, accordingly. Angie set the bar high for our long term goal: creating an equitable meal program for students from all backgrounds. Discussions also led us to define a mid-term goal: shifting perceptions about school lunches. This helped us frame our goal for the sprint: discovering ways in which we can redesign students’ access to food. During the 5 day sprint, teams used these goals as their reference points, and checked the direction for their concepts.

Sprint goals scaffold into future longterm goals.

Design Sprint Experience

Reflecting back on our experiences from day one through day five, we realized the journey was an evolution of team members from avid learners to hardcore prototypers. The first two days were pure immersion and conversations with stakeholders. The learnings and insights from the first two days fueled the teams to generate fresh ideas and prototypes for the rest of the week. The senior class was engaged in the design sprint- as stakeholders, interviewees, and co-designers (they participated in an ideation session in parallel) who validated and tested the early prototypes.

The two teams had different cadences and backgrounds. Yet, they developed similar concepts at the end of the sprint. Team 1 defined their design principles as abundance, care, and confidence, and they used these principles to guide their design concepts. Team 2 made good use of journey maps to spot the pit moments in coming up with their concepts. They identified agency, food, and cafeteria appeal as their principles and guiding the design concepts.

We asked one of the participants, Laura Pickel, to reflect back on her experience. Here is what she said:

As an educator, I rarely have the luxury of showing up to a workshop and playing the participant role, being able to take the time to dig into the empathy work, unpack it, and try out some solutions. During this week, I was able to embrace my inner designer, and ended the week refreshed, really feeling the impact of design thinking.
Meeting at Mission High School the first day was a great way to ground us in the challenges. It was a pretty barren lunch room, with some good natural light, but not a lot of color. It’s one of the lunch rooms that hasn’t yet been renovated, so it gave us a good sense of the blank slate. Meeting the the high schoolers continued to confirm some assumptions I had already had about the space — that it was not a desirable place to hang out. One student we talked to said he ate in the cafeteria once and hasn’t bothered since. We then got to experience the lunch for ourselves — immersing in the lunch time chaos. The lines were long, the food choices were confusing, the staff was friendly but harried.
The student perspectives and our own experience going through the line were nicely contrasted with Angie’s explanation of SNS’s journey so far. Yes, she said, they understand that the environment of a cafeteria matters. Yes, she said, they understand that they have to overcome the general perception of school lunch as gross, a perception promulgated by not just students within a school, but in media and pop culture.
Lunch vending machines are popular amongst middle-schoolers.
Our first day was also nicely contrasted by our second day. On our second day, we went to Marina Middle School. At Marina, a school that has already gone through a first round of re-design, the lunch room is covered in color and fun graphics. The seating areas are varied and comfortable. The chaos of lunch is controlled by school staff, and not just the already busy cafeteria staff. While there were still some clear needs for improvement — clarity of food options, increased attention to the presentation of food — it was a clear improvement on the experience at Mission the day before. I was particularly taken with the idea of the vending machine (pictured to the left) and could imagine my middle school self being taken with the idea of getting my lunch from an attractive machine.
After being provided each of these unique perspectives — an unchanged lunchroom, a changed lunchroom, and an innovator who has seen these changes through since the origin of the redesign, our team felt ready to dig into creating personas and developing solutions.

10 Design Insights & Learnings

Sketch of a lunch from the Post-World War Two America, by Margaret Hagan

As facilitators and participants, we discovered several key insights on the sprint experience and overall challenge.

Insight 1: Constraints fuel creativity

As the teams were uncovering elements of the school food system, we became bewildered with the complexity and constraints. There are so many regulations regarding the ingredients, preparation, and delivery of the food. We took this as an opportunity for creativity. The design team was forced to work within the constraints of a large, regulated, and outdated food system, but it remained creative and was fueled by inspiration from adjacent and analogous situations.

For example, food needs to be refrigerated if it leaves the kitchen even for a short time for delivery. This sparked a wide spectrum of ideas, ranging from creating student ambassador roles to take the food for their friends, to special delivery bags with cooling pads.

Insight 2: Harness diversity yet mind the chaos that comes with it

In our design teams, we both had core members, who participated the entire cycle, and rotating members, who participated in parts of the cycle. Moreover, we had three teams (two sprint teams and one student team) working on the same challenge. These teams resulted in a fluctuating team cadence, with challenges and benefits.

Challenges including on-boarding and facilitation. Forming a team that works for an entire cycle might make things faster and easier to manage. However, changing team members may also result in benefits. Cross cultural food experiences from the participants, for instance, helped us empathize more with students. Some of the participants who “dropped” in for only a part of the design sprint helped the design teams frame/ref-frame the design challenge and get quick feedback/validation on ideas, with a fresh perspective. Moreover, two teams working on the same challenge came up with similar solutions. This functioned as validation for the challenge itself.

Insight 3: Do your homework, but let the flow and goals guide the sprint

Knowing and planning for the arc of the design sprint, with the support of a deck, methods, and booklet, helped us stay on schedule as facilitators. That being said, while working with expert participants, it’s okay to go off script and let participants improvise methods, as long as it doesn’t cause confusion or delay in the sprint.

Insight 4: ‘Small’ might mean ‘big’ in systems

As we went through cycles of ideation and prototyping, we identified opportunities for quick wins that could be achieved with small tweaks and changes to the system. Small hacks result in big value, such as a water station at the end of a food line, or clear signage informing students in meaningful ways. Sometimes innovation can be most impactful when it’s small.

The same applies to teams that were sprinting together. Small design teams function better- move faster, test quickly. When teams grow in size and consist of more than 7 people, it would make sense to find a reasonable division of labor and divide them into two sub-groups.

Insight 5: Food is secondary to social connection

One big question that motivated us from the beginning of the sprint was about students’ values, desires, and goals. Interacting with students at different phases of the sprint helped us unveil some of these values. The first day of interviews gave us a glimpse of what they care about, including agency and being able to make choices. Students care about convenience and cost. They also care about the appeal of the food and how it’s being presented.

Based on our conversations, we also discovered that what matters most for these young people during breaks, is not the food itself, but the ability to spend time on activities that help them feel connected to their core selves. For some, this connection is playing basketball. For others, its hanging out with friends, or just chilling while watching videos on their phones. This activity-first mindset, coupled with the negative perceptions of cafeteria lunch, led the majority of students skip lunch, or choose hunger or outside food over cafeteria food.

Insight 6: Perception drives the decision making

Our stakeholder interviews clearly demonstrated that a lot of love and care go into school lunches, but students don’t see that. During our discovery phase, we encountered several significant perceptions regarding food, cafeteria, and the school food system.

At one of the schools, for instance, there’s a strong perception that cafeteria food is only for the freshmen students. This perception is supported by the limited choices in menus. As students grow, they want more agency and choices for their food. Moreover, the way the food is presented feeds the perception that the food is not fresh even though it is prepared daily and locally in Oakland with fresh ingredients.

Insight 7: Meet & feed students where they are

Service delivery program concepts that we developed (see below) proved to work, in principle. However, further testing is needed to flesh out the pre-ordering and pick-up station touchpoints. The sandwich program as a separate food line created excitement among students, and validated our initial perceived ‘newness’ principle. In pre-ordering sandwiches, the majority of students chose the custom sandwich option. Students also favored the Food Locker’s simple ‘yes’ and ‘no’ switch. This further validated our hunch about their preference for making their own choices. This would potentially cause difficulties for the dining staff, in terms of logistics and timeliness of pre-ordering. Yet, one potential idea to solve this problem is to create an MVP version with limited choices, or even with fake pre-orders.

Insight 8: Create local & unique branding

While prototyping packaging for the sandwich line, we created a sticker with the school’s mascot on two different packaging materials. Regardless of whether it was paper or clear plastic wrapping, students preferred packaging with their school’s mascot on it. This validated our initial idea that students value unique, local branding. Lunch at school shouldn’t just be school lunch. It should be an experience tied to the school’s identity. This finding also resonated with some of our other initial ideas, such as the possibility of students co-creating their own food branding.

Insight 9: Start with easy wins

Before getting into introducing new programs or food lines, there’s a lot to achieve with small nudges and tweaks to the system. As we were reflecting, one simple improvement for the lunch experience would be the beverages. Students repeatedly asked for water and other alternatives to milk that currently accompanies their lunch. This also came up as one of the concepts from student groups. By just adding water stations with different flavors, one can add that uniqueness to the lunch that students have been craving for when they go out to cafes around the campus.

‘More drinks’ concept was created during the Mission High School design sprint, facilitated by Mark D’Acquisto and Juri Sanchez.

Insight 10: Tap into untapped human power

As we worked with SFUSD and SNS staff, we discovered the importance of people who are working in the system and who are present in students’ lives. During our two days of observations, we met staff who made a huge difference in kids’ engagement with lunch programs. For example, one dining staff takes the initiative to promote the food, and acts as an advocate for different food programs. She takes ownership and tells students that she also eats the food, reassuring that it’s fresh, and tasty. When we dug deeper into her story, we also discovered that she started as a volunteer and eventually made the leap to become a full-time employee. One of her core values is care, both for the kids, and for the food. Future design efforts could potentially model the values and mental model of people like her, in designing access to food solutions, and training modules for dining staff.

Access to Food Concepts

These 10 insights were derived from the discovery and development of several concepts. We developed these concepts on changing perceptions and delivery of the food. In particular, we focused on choice/choice making, appeal of the food, and delivery of the food.

Access to Food concepts were rich and reflected service and branding concepts that experiment new ways of delivering and experiencing food in San Francisco schools.

The two teams created several prototypes, ran them as little experiments and got feedback from students. When we reflect back, both teams followed a service design approach with two different flavors. First team tested three different service concepts regarding access to food. Team 2 developed one overarching service concept with several touchpoints, and tested these touchpoints. Team 1 created the Food Locker program, Mission Cafe, and Group Lunch experiments. Team 2 created the Pre-order Sandwich Program that experimented with pre-ordering, food packaging, and pick-up station touchpoints.

Food locker and Pre-ordering sandwich experimented with the choice and agency. Food Locker took the minimalist approach and gave students only the option to accept or decline lunch (by simply saying a yes or no to a physical switch). Pre-ordering sandwich program experimented with giving options to modify sandwich ingredients with a paper menu, similar to a sandwich shop.

Mission Cafe, and Food packaging concepts experimented with introducing small wins, and brand identity. Mission cafe introduced elements of transparency (showcasing today’s food), telling the story of the food (showcasing the chef), and clarity (clear signage for orientation and food selection.)

Group lunch and Pick-up stations experimented with alternative channels to deliver food. Group lunch suggested a take-out dinner model where a group of students can order together and eat their lunch wherever they want. Sandwich program’s pick-up stations also played with this idea, but diversifying the pick up stations, such as library, cafeteria, or basketball court.

Food Locker

Food Locker is a service concept that radically simplifies the choice making for students. The idea is getting good food delivered to your locker when you are out from classes.

‘Mission Cafe’

Quick Wins for a better Cafeteria Lunch Experience: This concept explores ways to reduce wait times, to recognize and acknowledge dining staff to engage with students and serve food with empathy and care and to provide a better end-to-end lunch experience for students.

Group Lunch

Group Lunch is a concept for a group of students to pre-order lunch for express pick-up at lunchtime (groups of minimum 3 or 4).

Pre-Order Sandwich Program

The Pre-Order sandwich program offers a new line of food for students to flexibly choose their sandwich and delivery location. This concept gets its inspiration from an extremely popular Breakfast in Classroom program.

Local ‘School Pride’ sandwiches

Mission Cafe ‘School Pride’ branding is part of the sandwich program concept. It suggests a branding framework, in which each school creates its own branding, in the form of mascots or student co-created artwork.

Students’ overall responses demonstrated that they value convenience, cost, and quality of food. They care about recycling, and footprints resulting from how the food is made.

Next steps

Having completed the testing, teams presented their five day journeys to each other and to a group of staff from SFUSD and SNS, as well as to the senior class’s teacher. A subgroup of the design teams worked together with Angie and her colleagues to categorize the concepts into pilots that were testable in 60–90 days, 6 months, 1 year and beyond time frames.

The group also brainstormed and defined a “high impact/low effort” matrix for the concepts to determine how to distribute efforts to create and test the pilots. The senior class of 29 students will iterate on the “high impact/low effort” concepts and pilot them by the end of this school year with coaching from their teacher, the SFUSD staff, and designers from the sprint. The remaining concepts will be piloted by Angie and her team in the coming months.

Watch our video story that highlights the participants’ rich perspectives, here.


We’d like to thank all of our participants, Angela McKee, Lauren Heumann, Juri Sanchez, Mark D’Acquisto, Julia Cocchia, Laura Pickel, Bethany Polentz, Sylvie Charpentier, Neslihan Kus, Margaret Hagan, Rana Chakrabarti, Andrea Fineman, Harrison Thomas, Oliver Manheim, Günhan Pikdöken, and all other SNS staff and friends who attended parts of the sprint. We’d like to give a shout-out to Julia Queck for her video story and Giana Kischmischian for her help with booklet design.