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The Lunch Club

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The Lunch Club is a digital platform that guides high school students through the design process of identifying, co-creating, and sharing their visions for equitable and sustainable change in their cafeterias. 

The platform leverages Empowerment Theory and a project-based learning framework to empower students to take on the role of designer and view themselves as change agents of their environment.


During my Master of Design (MDes) work at the University of Michigan, I started exploring equity and access issues in public high schools. During my research, I discovered that students felt they had no voice in their cafeterias and that their ability to have choice in what and how they ate was limited. This was especially true for students that relied on the National School Lunch Program for their meals.  To address this problem, I started asking high school students to envision what they wanted to see in their cafeteria. This process developed into The Lunch Club, an online platform that empowers students to act as change agents in their schools, their community, and their planet. 

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Partner: EduChange 

This research was undertaken in partnership with EduChange, Inc. Led by Catherine Saldutti, President and Founder, EduChange has been revolutionizing high school and adult education curricula for over 20 years and is uniquely focused on teaching with an equity lens and providing STEM educational tools that are contextual, integrated, and project-based. 

Design Framework: Model for Dialogic Design Empowerment

The Lunch Club uses empowerment theory and a project-based learning framework to place students as equal participants in an ongoing dialogue with decision-makers to create positive change. 

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The current school cafeteria system places value on cost and efficiency over student, community, and environmental well-being. This is reflected by the ongoing challenges in all areas of cafeteria systems including poor food quality, stigmatization of students, disconnects with educational goals, and negative environmental impact. Despite being the main stakeholders in school cafeterias, students’ voices and agency are only being considered peripherally or removed entirely. This impedes the sustainable and equitable reformation and development of these spaces and removes opportunities for students to gain important skills, attitudes, and knowledge as 21st-century citizens. To address this, the research and development for The Lunch Club explored three questions:

• What are student goals for the future development of cafeterias? 

• How can high school students become an active voice in designing the equitable and sustainable cafeteria of the future? 

• How can this design process be empowering so that students view themselves as active change agents in their food systems?


Research and Development 

Research for The Lunch Club platform ran from Fall 2019 - Spring 2021 and included: 


High School Student Participants


Hours of Interviews


Design Workshops


Research for The Lunch Club platform began in the Fall of 2019 with an initial exploratory research project with 46 students at Community High School. The project consisted of several research activities, including a creative activity asking students to quickly design their ideal cafeteria.


The most important finding from this project was that students were able to share an incredible range of creative ideas for their cafeteria in just the short creative activity they completed in class. Their designs touched on themes of equity, accessibility, and sustainability while sharing innovative ideas for better overall eating experiences. See examples below.

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Research continued with a contextual review of the literature and in-depth stakeholder interviews. In this stage, it became clear that talking about cafeterias on a systems-level is challenging. Those who did not interact with them on a daily basis or who interacted with them at a more granular level often thought about cafeterias in two ways, either simply a room where students ate or the food that was served there. A visual systems map was created to capture the complexity and interconnectivity of a school cafeteria and encourage collaborators to engage in systems thinking.

Here the cafeteria system is broken into four areas: plate, place, people, and policy. In each of these areas are the main stakeholders or decision-makers, and at the center are the students themselves. This visual is not intended to be comprehensive, but to serve as a tool for starting discussions, positioning students as central stakeholders, and quickly conveying the complexity and overlaps in different cafeteria systems.


From this systems map, an icon set designed to help visually identify the four cafeteria areas and is used throughout the platform and other design outcomes


In this stage, interviews with stakeholders in food service, school administration, government, and curriculum designers continued. In addition, a virtual (due to COVID-19) co-creation workshop was designed to involve high school students in the design process and gain a deeper understanding of their wants and needs in their cafeterias. This workshop consisted of 2 parts:

  • A 30-minute semi-structured interview (conducted over Zoom)

  • A future-casting activity (conducted using Mural)

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Students were read a short future scenario positioning them as designers and emphasizing the importance of their voice in a hypothetical school’s decision-making process. The scenario was written using stories and information collected during interviews with decision-makers. They were then given a "design toolkit" and asked to map their current cafeteria before designing a future cafeteria in the year 2030. See examples below.

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Prototype - Test

Data from student co-creation workshops were analyzed using a method called affinity mapping, where each element from students' maps were written down and grouped by theme. Each of these themes was translated to an aspirational goal for future cafeteria development.


These were titled "The Sustainable and Equitable Cafeteria goals" and represent a set of 14 student-generated goals to guide the development of school cafeterias. The goals are divided into four categories representing the four areas (or systems) of the cafeteria: plate, place, policy, and people. While using The Lunch Club platform, students choose which cafeteria area and which goal they would like to align with. In addition, the goals are designed to be shared with decision-makers external to the platform. 


A review of all research to date revealed several key insights:

Students wanted to be able to engage with the design process on an ongoing basis, not just in a single workshop.


All previous examples of cafeteria and empowerment programs relied on a skilled facilitator and could not occur asynchronously or in a hybrid (partially online) format. This meant that existing programs shut down during COVID-19.


Real change occurred when students acted as catalysts within their school by connecting different key stakeholders together and sharing their thoughts and options in a clear and constructive way.


Project-Based Learning is a proven framework for creating empowering and meaningful learning opportunities for students while creating change within the cafeteria space, but it required ongoing structure and support for students and educators.


Based on these insights, I planned to build an online platform that would use design frameworks to guide students through the process of identifying, co-creating, and sharing their visions for equitable and sustainable change in their cafeterias.


Platform process and layout wireframes were drafted and refined in several rounds.

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Once a final platform process and design were identified, I built the actual site in WordPress with a custom Learning Management System using the process outlined below. 

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It became evident during the design of the platform that students would need more support at certain stages of the process than could be achieved with traditional written or visual content. To address this, I created a set of tools that would help immerse students in the design process while providing the structure needed for a successful Project-Based Learning experience. These tools form “The Lunch Club Toolkit,” which can be accessed by students through a physical kit they receive in the mail, a printable PDF version, or digitally through the platform.

The Toolkit includes:

  • Set of Food Systems Design Terms

  • Sponsor Agreement

  • Design Values Tool

  • Cafeteria Mapping Tool

  • Cafeteria Futures Ideation Card Game

  • Interview Template- Survey Template

  • Stakeholder Mapping Tool- Stakeholder Co-Creation Board

  • Rubric Template

For each tool, and low-fidelity prototype was created on paper and reviewed before being translated to a high-fidelity digital version. These digital versions were then printed and reviewed again before a final prototype was created. 

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The final platform will be piloted at high schools starting in the Fall of 2021!

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