The 30-minute lunch break at Webster Elementary in Minneapolis looks more like a family dinner than a traditional school lunch. There, students pass dishes like chicken and noodles around their tables, serve each other milk and reflect together on their day.
Gone is time spent waiting in lunch lines at Webster. Students no longer pick up their prepackaged lunches and take them to tables.
Instead, Webster’s lunchtime is an atmosphere that Principal Ginger Davis Kranz said instills life skills and a more relaxed, rather than rushed, environment.
“I wanted it to feel like a calm, enjoyable mealtime where kids could appreciate their food, appreciate good conversation and maybe even advance their learning through other types of conversations they might have — or also through jobs that they have,” Kranz said.
Kids scoop out their own servings before passing them around their tables. They’ll jump in to clean up spills. They talk with one another about food — remarking, for instance, that a dish was tasty.
The school moved to family-style lunches about a year ago, Kranz said. It is the only school in the Minneapolis Public Schools district to use the family-style lunch break, she said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has applauded Webster’s lunch efforts. Dr. Katie Wilson, the department’s deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, called the school’s dining experience “innovative and thoughtful” on USDA’s blog in late December.
Family-style models in schools can boost students’ physical health “by increasing consumption of key nutrients and decreasing the prevalence of food waste,” noted a study published in the Journal of Child Nutrition & Management in 2015. The link between health and family-style service in school cafeterias hasn’t been fully researched, the study added.
“The school cafeteria is a natural environment to teach table manners, encourage supportive relationships and nurture social skills for children,” the study said.
Students at Webster go to their tables to start passing around food and taking drink orders. Unlike the typical long lunch tables, the round tables facilitate student conversation, Kranz said.
Students have lunchroom jobs that can range from taking drink orders to wiping down tables. The responsibility is a critical element of a lunch program, Kranz said.
“It’s not just people serving you and whisking it away and you’re all good, but that you have jobs to take care of your environment,” she said.
The school is looking for ways to tie curriculum in with lunchroom lessons. For example, Kranz said first-graders learn about scarcity, which is easy to teach when someone takes a too-large helping of food for lunch — and there isn’t enough for their tablemates.
Not many students pack their lunches, but those who do sit at the tables and pass the food along, Kranz said. Some lunch packers started getting school lunch after the school rolled in the family-style dining experience, she said.
“There’s something about sitting and sharing the meal together that’s very different than me bringing my individual tray,” she said.