Seventh-grade student Alex Luu, 12, surveyed the hot-lunch options before him in the Roosevelt Middle School cafeteria on a recent Wednesday: a hamburger or a bean-and-cheese burrito.
He also could have opted for a barbecued-turkey wrap or a salad from the to-go section, but selected the burrito because it “looked much more delicious.”
And then came a novel question Luu, along with other Roosevelt students, now faces at lunchtime: Where should I sit?
For the first time, the students have options beyond simply rectangular tables with stools attached.
In the new dining hall, students sit at round tables and chairs, long movable tables and a lounge area with plastic-covered couches and foot rests. The space at Roosevelt reopened Oct. 21 after undergoing a monthslong renovation as part of a pilot project tied to the San Francisco Unified School District's overall food-service transformation.
The space, about 25 percent bigger and boasting modern decor, looks more like San Francisco's hottest new restaurant than a school cafeteria.
“It's much more state-of-the-art, it's all new and we have the new cushions,” Luu said of the lounge area. “Regardless of wherever I sit, I still like it because it's more decorative and much more colorful.”
Roosevelt is the first SFUSD school to renovate its cafeteria space using input from more than 1,300 students, parents, nutrition staff, principals, teachers and administrators. In addition to the new seating options, which include a lounge area labeled Chill Out, students now have three places to acquire meals and two screen displays of current menus.
The renovation followed a five-month collaboration last year with Bay Area-based design and consulting firm IDEO to rethink the SFUSD's food system and encourage more students to participate in the lunch program, which is an ongoing issue for the district.
Of the students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals, only 57 percent are participating in the program. And 13 percent of students purchase meals at a regular price.
The idea is to create a space where students want to eat and are not held up by long lines — two things that seem to have previously prevented students from participating in lunch, said Angela McKee, project manager for the SFUSD's future dining experience.
That way, she added, students “can relax, they can eat, they can go outside and play, and actually have time to do that whole process.”
District administrators will assess what students like about the new cafeteria and use that to help transform other school sites. Next up is Thurgood Marshall High School, which in the spring is expected to revamp its dining space. And the new Willie Brown Jr. Middle School will offer a subsequent redesigned cafeteria when it opens in August.
It cost about $45,000 to renovate Roosevelt's dining space, primarily for new furniture and other nonstructural changes that fell outside of construction costs paid for by a 2011 bond. While private donors funded Roosevelt's new cafeteria, the SFUSD estimates that improvements for each individual school will cost $15,000 to $45,000. The district is pursuing various funding options.
The SFUSD does not just want students to enjoy where they eat lunch. Students should also know what they are eating and where it comes from, said Zetta Reicker, director of Student Nutrition Services for the district.
That's why the SFUSD is one of 15 school districts in the state to join California Thursdays, a program that launched Oct. 23 at 1,767 schools with the intent to serve California food to California students. Each Thursday, the SFUSD and the other participating districts will highlight a food item and teach students where it comes from.
“Through the California Thursdays campaign, we're informing [students] where their school meals are coming from,” Reicker said. “We haven't really highlighted and showcased the specific items that we're serving [before].”
On launch day, students at Balboa High School tasted sandwiches with turkey from Diestel Turkey Ranch in Sonora. Joan Diestel, co-founder of the ranch, explained to students how they raise turkeys.
“Students want to have a connection to where their food is grown and where it's sourced from,” Reicker said.
While the SFUSD has served only fresh food to students since contracting with Revolution Foods in January 2013, the district does not know how much of the food is sourced locally, Reicker said.
Mission High School is no stranger to local food — in fact, the campus yard serves as a garden for students. In October, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, and celebrity chef Tom Colicchio toured the garden to taste its fruit, as well as meals served by Revolution Foods.
“We know that when kids have proper nutrition early on, they have much better health outcomes [and] education outcomes,” Colicchio said. “When someone knows the name of the farmer that they're buying the turkey from, you know they care about food.”