On family-style meal days in the Franklin City Public Schools, there’s no standing in line.
Students file into the dining hall at the start of the lunch period and find their seats at tables that are covered with tablecloths and set with plates, silverware, condiments and festive vases of plastic flowers. There are also bowls and platters of individually portioned servings of the day’s lunch offerings on each table, such as wrapped sandwiches or containers of macaroni and cheese and cups of fruit salad.
Once seated, students immediately pass the serving dishes and fill their plates.
When Juanita Vick, the supervisor of transportation and nutritional services for the district, which is located in Virginia, saw a YouTube video about the benefits of family-style dining in school settings, she was impressed. When she did some more research, she came across a wealth of studies that report positive conclusions about the practice.
One such study notes in its conclusions, for instance, that “family-style service in schools and childcare settings results in greater autonomy, enhanced intakes of key nutrients, and increased opportunities for adult role-modeling and social interaction with adults and peers.”
Observations such as these encouraged Vick to move ahead with a pilot program in her own district.
Initially, she and the district’s deputy supervisor of operations planned just one family-style lunch served in all three of the schools in the district: one elementary school and one middle school in addition to Franklin High, with a total of 12 lunch periods between them.
Vick noticed an immediate difference in the students. So did school staff and teachers. The central observation was that students were calmer. More relaxed. It also seemed to help with the transition back into classroom. Vick and the other adults attribute the change in student demeanor to extra time at the table.
“It gives them a lot more time to interact with each other, instead of standing in line and having to be in a hurry and having to eat their lunch down so quickly,” she says.
“They’re actually sitting and eating and socializing with their peers. And when children are sitting down in the dining hall and actually eating, it wasn’t so loud.”
She notes that students typically spend about 10 minutes out of a 30-minute lunch period waiting for their food.
After the initial meal, staff quickly agreed that they should implement it as a monthly practice.
In February, March, April and May of this year, they served themed, family-style lunches at all three schools, focusing on holidays: Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter and Memorial Day.
Dining hall manager Marcia Parker says family-style dining does not require much more time from the dining staff. They prepare foods in the same way but rather than serve it on the line, they pack it into individual servings put it on the tables 15 minutes before students arrive. They replace the food for subsequent lunch periods.
Staff members set the tables the night before. Since breakfast is served in the classrooms at all three schools, breakfast service does not disrupt the family-style lunches in the dining halls.
She says there has not been a need for extra staff, though more teachers and other staff provide supervision in the dining hall during lunch service on those days.
If students request more food, cafeteria staff will deliver it to the tables directly. In addition to food at the tables, premade chef salads are available at the high school along with a Healthy Choice option that includes yogurt, graham crackers, fruit, milk and cheese sticks.
They serve all foods at the table wrapped in individual portions to eliminate the possibility of food coming into direct contact with hands. The meal program has had no effect on USDA regulations. All meals are exactly the same as the meals students receive on the line.
The program has been so successful that the school is planning to hold monthly family-style meals once a month during the upcoming school year, September through May.
Asked whether the district has considered doing it more often, Vick says the current plan is to stick to monthly family-style meals, adding that she thinks “it wouldn’t be as special if we did it every day.”
It sounds like students can tell that extra care has gone into the lunch experience.
“It’s quieter in there,” Parker reports. “They see everything decorated for them and that we’re doing something for them. Everything’s there. All they have to do is just sit down and eat.”