A School’s Dining Environment: Why is it Important?

Alice Waters describes how the design and atmosphere of the dining room can encourage students to feel happy, healthy, and comfortable.

A School’s Dining Environment: Why is it Important?

An interview with Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse Restaurant and founder of The Edible Schoolyard

Alice Waters has served on the boards of The Land Institute, National Committee for Mothers and Others for Pesticide Limits, and as an advisor for Public Voice on Food Safety and Health. For her efforts in establishing The Edible Schoolyard, Alice Waters has been awarded a John Stanford Education Heroes Award, the Excellence in Education Award, and the James Beard Humanitarian of the Year Award.

Center for Ecoliteracy: Alice, can you describe your philosophy about the importance of the dining environment, especially as it relates to children and the dining experience?

Alice Waters: In order for kids to be seated at a table together and really connect around a table, the table needs to be prepared in a particular way that encourages them to be together, and conceivably encourages them to share their food. In our work at The Edible Schoolyard, we’re communicating to the kids that we really care about them, not only about what they put in their mouths. We’ve made a place that is comfortable, because that shows them that we care, too. We want them to see beautiful things, as well as to smell and to taste beautiful things. For example, I love to put down the tablecloth. That’s all a part of telling them that we care. We’re creating an atmosphere that naturally fosters goodwill and respect — an everyday experience that encourages civilized conduct.

We set the table with a tablecloth, and real plates, forks and knives. We think about the center of the table. Maybe it can use a little centerpiece. The kids choose what that might be, whether it’s flowers from the garden, something from the kitchen, some vegetables, or something that’s going to be part of what the kids are eating. The improvements to the food or the surroundings don’t need to be costly. They can be quite simple.

CEL: What do you think the distinction is between serving meals on disposable paper or plastic plates, and serving food on real dishes?

AW: When we serve food on real dishes with real silverware, I think we’re modeling sustainability. We’re trying to present the kids with an alternative to the idea of disposability — to the notion that you can just throw it away once you’ve finished. In The Edible Schoolyard kitchen classroom, students have the experience of cloth napkins that are washed every day. I think that the silverware and the dishes have that same teaching value. We’re connecting the eating experience to a set of values that naturally leads students toward a healthier future for themselves and the planet.

CEL: I’ve heard you mention various serving styles — cafeteria style, family style, fresh prep — several different ways that food can be presented to students that keeps it interesting and appealing.

AW: I just think about all the different ways that you can connect kids with food. While you want to keep it alive and exciting for them, at the same time there should be something about the eating experience that’s always the same. The routine of table setting, table clearing, and recycling is a reassuring activity that all students can take part in.

One service style that is interesting to us is family style. In that approach, the food is on the table on platters as the kids enter the dining hall, or the kids bring the platters to their table when they arrive. Once the whole table is seated, they can begin by passing the platters of food around. In this approach to service, students learn to wait to eat until everyone has been served. They learn not to take more than their share. This style of service allows them to think about everyone seated around the table as they gauge a portion for themselves, to make sure the last person has a serving.

Family style might not be as popular as the serving line model, but I think that’s because it takes more preparation time on the side of the cooking team and the serving team. Though some people think that family style is more trouble for food service staff, or a slower service model, the advantage is that when the kids come to the table it’s all there for them. They can begin. The kids standing behind one another in the cafeteria line, having to make individual choices there in line as they go through, slows things down, too.

I think that family style and cafeteria style both have things to recommend them. The cafeteria model is its own kind of learning experience. The kids help themselves to the food. They make their choices, bring the food back to the table, and sit with different people. They’re not obliged to their tablemates in the same way that family style implies. They can take a shorter time to eat. I think there are times when that style is appropriate.

I also like the "fresh prep" idea of an open kitchen/dining environment where students can see food being prepared and talk with the people who are cooking. That’s another kind of an interaction that’s very valuable, talking with the cook. It has a little of the feel of a market, where students learn about feeding themselves through watching food being prepared.

The goal is to have information coming in through all the senses, in all the ways it can, because there are many different learning styles.

People learn in different ways, and the dining experience, talking with the cook, observing, participating, are all ways to learn. More important than any particular style of service, of course, is the overall quality of the dining experience.

CEL: When the midday meal is part of the life of the whole learning community, does that feeling of connectedness begin to extend outside the dining room as well?

AW: We believe it does. Food is a wonderful way to share and celebrate the diversity of culture and traditions. Sharing a midday meal together is one way to influence the culture of the entire school. And that extends into the way that the food is presented and served. Japanese food, for example, offers an opportunity to learn how to eat with chopsticks, if you haven’t learned already. Sometimes it’s appropriate to eat with your fingers. Sometimes it’s not. For holidays or special occasions, we might want to make the setting in the dining room something very different from what the kids are accustomed to, sort of a surprise that wakes them up for this whole experience. It’s really a whole way of doing things that we’re teaching. In the kitchen at The Edible Schoolyard, we’re teaching lessons about cooperation, for example, just in terms of setting plates and clearing plates.

CEL: You mentioned the skill of judging how much is on the platter, and knowing how much to serve yourself, so there’s still a serving by the time it gets to the last person. Ordinarily, wouldn’t that learning experience take place at home?

AW: Many students eat very few meals at home, so you really can’t assume that’s true. We’ve become accustomed to food as a convenience. We serve and consume food in such quantities nobody thinks about how much to take. I think that’s not good for kids. At school, and probably as a nation, we’re going to need to work something out around portion control. What is a reasonable amount for kids to eat? It’s a very important question that must be answered, because we don’t want to contribute to the health problems that are already there. One message might be that we just need to eat a little less as individuals, and as a planet.

CEL: Since environment, or ambience, is essentially a sensory experience, what role do the senses play in student enjoyment of meals?

I have always felt that it excites the palate to have something delicious cooking: the bread, the herbs, the roasting chicken. The students need their olfactory sense to be stimulated, purposefully stimulated and awakened. The smells that come from cooking real food prepare them to eat that food. It can be aromas from the oven drifting into the dining room, or some fresh rosemary being broken up for cooking. There are lots of ways to create those fragrances. It’s equally important that the dining room does not smell like cleaning products, floor wax, and those kinds of smells that are so industrial and so off-putting. Only good smells ought to be connected with food.

In order to lower the clatter of the dining room, especially with so many young people in the room at the same time, I think you want to have softer surfaces everywhere to cushion sound. Even in the dish room, you can really minimize the clatter by putting rubber mats down on the dish racks. You can install rubber mats on the floor for insulation and soundproofing in all the rooms. The sound can be broken up in the dining room with eaves and floor surfaces. Chairs can have cushioned feet. Tables have tablecloths. The kids learn to remove dishes from the table quietly. When students put the silverware down, they need to learn to place it, not throw it down. That’s all part of the practice of setting and clearing the table.

Visually, there’s an important opportunity to demystify what’s happening in the kitchen. Through an open kitchen design that blends the cooking and dining environments, your kitchen staff can interact with the people they serve. The kitchen staff, who’ve been working from six in the morning to prepare the food, needs to see the students enjoying their meal and hear their appreciation. Isolation of the kitchen staff from the dining room interferes with the whole community experience. You need to bring those people who are cooking the food out and have them communicate with the kids.

The opportunity to see what is occurring in the kitchen can be a valuable part of the learning experience. The kids need to see the kitchen staff working, and see all the steps that go into preparing the meal, in order to appreciate the hard work the kitchen has been doing on their behalf. It’s all part of understanding what is involved with feeding ourselves. It doesn’t just magically happen. If the students can see the immediacy of the food arriving, being prepped into salads, washed, drained and served, see the orders going up, they will not only be able to appreciate the care that is going into the lunch, they will also know more about how to feed themselves. It’s an entire learning experience. What’s most important is that there is a set of values attached.

CEL: What does it mean to have values connected to the meal experience shared by the whole learning community?

AW: For example, when the food is brought in from local sustainable farms, the food itself carries a whole set of values connected to particular places, family farms, and the people who care for the land as a way of life. For the students eating the food, I think it completely enriches their lives. It opens up their senses. The food in the dining room, the work students do in the garden, and the meals they prepare together in the kitchen classroom, are all linked to a set of values that are discussed as part of the work. Values such as responsibility, interconnectedness, cooperation, friendship, pleasure of work, and diversity are foundational to what it means to be human and to live in community with others.

These meta-cognitive lessons provide students with a context that leads to all kinds of understandings and ideas that simply were not available before. They sense and they perceive things differently because their awareness of the world is fuller. It lends a kind of richness and complexity to their experiences that helps them to evaluate what they’re seeing. It brings meaning to the learning. It’s a whole other world for them that is connected to a set of values, and a sense of time, and a mutual responsibility for one another.

CEL: Since we can’t give everyone a rulebook or a formula for improving the atmosphere of the dining room at their school, what are some general ways to think about changing the environment where young people eat?

AW: How you care for the dining room indicates in some ways how you’re caring for the person who’s sitting at the table. First of all, the room should be clean, and it should have a kind of order that makes dining a pleasure. It’s great to have fresh air in the room that is filled with the aromas of the kitchen. The room should be painted in a complementary color that is a bit subdued or neutral — a color that does not compete with the food. Some paint choices are so strong that the color interferes with the experience of eating. I’m most comfortable with a soothing color.

Along with color, it’s important to pay attention to lighting. Light is an influencer of mood. Hopefully, the room has plenty of natural light, or interior lighting with a pleasant, softer quality. It seems sometimes that we’re trying to see too well. Mindlessly flicking the lights on can be a fatiguing practice, and eating under intense lights is unpleasant. You can turn those buzzing fluorescent lights off, and have another kind of light that’s more conducive to eating at a table. Students would benefit from a more decorative, less industrial light that has enough illumination at the table so that you can see what you’re eating, of course, but something that’s soft and pleasant, not fluorescent and sharp.

Look for tables and chairs that are repaired and in good shape. Avoid having things that are torn and broken. You want to convey the impression to the students that the room, and everything in it, is well taken care of.

CEL: For people who are designing common dining rooms, what is the core of the message that the dining environment should convey?

AW: The dining room exists to serve the students. For the students, everyday, the dining environment is speaking for the school district. The message should be, "We value you. Everything that you’re looking at, everything you taste and smell and hear, how we greet you, how you feel here, is telling you that we value you, and that we’re really taking good care of you." The environment of the common dining room tells students explicitly, and it tells them unconsciously, how the school district feels about them. The message is embedded in the surroundings of the dining room, in the ways people relate to one another, and in the food itself. It speaks to nourishment of the whole person, in an environment of hospitality, health, and respect.

The dining room should be a wonderful place that appeals to young people. The surroundings, as well as the meals, should encourage students to feel happy, healthy, and comfortable in that space. The atmosphere of the common dining room can bring the whole student body together everyday around a set of values, in harmonious surroundings that promote healthy eating habits and healthy interactions.