Cafeteria For Connection: A progressive approach to reintroducing structured eating patterns and community into schools.

The logo for the Cafeteria For Connection program.

Personal Interest.

What Is The Problem?

Western culture is dominated by a fast paced lifestyle and the strife for perfection. In general, these two aspects are thought to create motivation and drive for a person. However, when mixed with academics in schools, can be overwhelming and cause a crossroads between perfection and wellbeing. When people think of an eating disorder they often only think about anorexia and bulimia. They do not take into account the actual definition of disordered eating: any of a range of psychological disorders characterized by abnormal or disturbed eating habits. Abnormal and disturbed eating habits are all to common within a high-school atmosphere. Skipping breakfast is normal and skipping lunch is accepted. Parallel in importance, gossip talk in a school cafeteria has grown to become more than normalized and in turn has isolated many people within a school community from connecting. The biggest mistake high-schools make is accepting the assumption that at the age of 14, students can provide themselves with sufficient support mentally and nutritionally without any guidance. 

General Facts

  • Schools in the U.S are required to serve lunch sometime between 10am to 2pm. (CFR Section 210)
  • 50% of teen girls use unhealthy weight control behaviors.
  • 30% of teen boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors.
  • 45% of teenagers say they are stressed out by school pressures.

Case Study Survey Results

Survey link: (Feel free to take the survey yourself if you are interested!)

How often do you feel pressured to skip lunch and study for tests or other academic obligations?
What do you and your friends often talk about at lunch?
Do you ever feel judged for what you eat at lunch?
Have you ever talked about someone else’s looks and physical appearance while eating lunch?
How often do you feel like you eat fast because you need to do something before your next class?
Is lunch a time meant to just eat or is it a time to be social and connect with your peers?

Analysis Of Data: This survey revealed that the majority of The Pembroke Hill population has skipped lunch at least once a month because of high stress academics. Along with this, the data exhibited that gossip and academics are main topics of conversations in the cafeteria. Therefore, one can see that there is a clear trend of stress correlating to cafeteria experience. The lack of connection and education in the importance of nutrition is made evident in the results.

I-C-E Plan of Solution

Phase 1: Intention

“What one does is what counts. Not what one had the intention of doing.”

-Pablo Picasso 

In order for a school to start enacting a connection based cafeteria, they must first commit to a specific intention for the cafeteria. While most schools have programs in support of positive psychology concepts such as gratitude and compassion, these programs often lack a specific space and time frame. Lunch has a specific time in which it occurs and students need to be made aware of what this time is supposed to be used for. To start this process, schools should create a check in system. Every time someone comes in and out of the cafeteria they should scan there school ID. I would recommend opening up the scan information to the student body so that students can see who is at lunch. This information offers a way to make students feel more comfortable coming to the lunchroom as they can identify friends which eliminates any anxiety around sitting alone. It could also support the notion that students would come to the cafeteria because they see other people from there next class are there. Schools must have the intention of making students WANT to come to lunch. Forcing students to do something creates a divide between administration and students defeating the purpose of establishing connection. 

Phase 2: Connection

“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”

-Brené Brown

Connection in psychology is defined as:  Everyone is an individual, but every person is also connected to others and his or her environment. As humans, connection is vital to our wellbeing. It is more important now than ever to start establishing deep connections at a younger age as according to research feelings of  loneliness and disconnection are growing at an alarming rate. In fact, 25% of Americans claim to feel they have nobody to confide in. Along with this, 1 out of 4 people we meet feel they don’t have anyone they call a close friend. Establishing deeper connections at younger ages allows students to be set up even more for success and mental stability in the future. 

Effects of Strong Social Connection:

– a 50% increased chance of longevity
– strengthens your immune system(research by Steve Cole shows that genes impacted by loneliness also code for immune function and inflammation)
– Shorter disease recovery
– Could possibly allow you to live longer!

How Schools Can Support Connection Building

Once again the cafeteria is the most effective place to build social connection because of the consistency of the time block. When students enter the lunch room, they should understand that this time is for nourishment and connection. Any other time in the school day schoolwork can be done but during that 25 minute period it is important that they focus on their peers. In order for this type of deep connection building to occur, everyday there will be a deep question listed on a card at every table. While this is an indirect way to ask students to talk about the subject, simply handing them something will at the very least get them thinking. The exercise is meant to open students up to talking about hard topics and becoming vulnerable with fellow students to build trust. If vulnerability is practiced enough, students will become more comfortable talking about personal hardships with each other. 

Click this link to go to a list of deep example questions.

To learn more about the science behind social connection, watch this video!

Phase 3: Education

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”

-Nelson Mandela

In United States elementary schools, a program known as My Plate is taught in most physical education classes. This programs intention is to teach kids about portion control and living an active lifestyle. Unfortunately, My Plate does not follow students up into the higher grade levels. Therefore, teenagers often have little understanding of what there nutritional needs actually are. Nutrition is so important to the developing brain and has much impact on a persons mental health . Positive psychology is the scientific study of the positive aspects of the human experience that make life worth living. Positive aspects of the human experience can not be enjoyed without proper fuel. In an era where diet and exercise culture consume the minds of young adults and teenagers, often people reject hunger cues and the body is forced to adjust. Food is essential to the human life and getting enough of it is vital. Schools have a duty to give students the life skills to be independent members in society and a human can not be as productive without the proper nutrients. With that being said, schools should plan to implement nutrition programs within there cafeteria. I do 100% not recommend calorie labels be put on food. That encourages calorie counting and continued intentional disordered eating behavior. Instead, schools should focus on general nutrition information. If a school can allow students an opportunity to be reminded of what they should be eating, students will be more likely to experience the mental health benefits of proper nutrition such as: increased serotonin levels, lower reactions to stress and anxiety, happier mood, and dramatically lower levels of depression. Continuously, instead of teaching the terms “healthy” and ” unhealthy”, schools should consider teaching the term “balance”. Replacing these words allows for a less restrictive understanding of what it means to live an active lifestyle. Furthering the teaching of acceptance towards people of all different nutritional needs. The goal for introducing proper nutrition to students is to increase self-worth and self-care which in return increases confidence. 

To learn more about the role of nutrition in mental health, watch this!

Call To Action

Based on my observations and the research of verified experts, I feel I can advocate for the success of the I-C-E method as it properly establishes reason and evidence to support how and why the method would work if implemented. If you see the same characteristics that I saw in my school in yours, please email your administrators and ask them to set up a meeting to discuss how you can better structure your lunch period. While these are tough times we are in now, I am sure they will want to hear about improvements for the year to come. In the meantime, please answer the Flip Grid question below and I would love to hear any and all feedback you have for my project in the comments. 


Below you will see a QR code. All you have to do is go to your camera on an phone or Ipad and hold the code down. This should then take you to Flip Grid where you will be able to view the question. Once in you see the question, click record a response to answer!

Works Cited

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  1. April 23, 2020 by Becky Stevens

    Grace – I think you have created a great project and I hope that you will consider implementation of some of your ideas to our high school in the 20-21 school year. The speaker on nutrition and mental health was of particular interest to me as this is a connection I have believed for quite some time. Good work!

  2. April 24, 2020 by Piper Abernathy

    Grace, This was so well conceived and developed! I’m really proud of you and your confident speaking skills as well. I really hope we use these ideas as we redesign our lunchroom space!

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