The exercise of choice matters for children. In spite of Human Rights legislation and increased awareness of the importance of agency in childhood, the economic or market imperative is today the more powerful force. Early examples of initiatives in furnishing an element of choice in school meals can be found. A New York high school cafeteria in 1934 introduced suggestion boxes, soliciting from the girls ‘what they would like and how they would like it’. The same school offered the following ‘conveyor belt’ feature:
The students passing in line, help to make their own sandwiches… The student chooses her filling and the kind of bread she wants; the worker spreads the filling on the top slice of bread and hands the girl that slice and the one beneath it, on waxed paper. Then, as she goes down the line, the girl can put her sandwich together.44
The 1960s was a decade which encouraged a new look at edible landscapes. The Space Exploration Programmes of the USA and USSR stimulated technological developments in the reconstitution of foodstuffs. Experiments using frozen foods in school meals programmes began and there was a sense that the problems of transporting meals cooked in centralized kitchens might soon be overcome by advances in technology. These developments in turn encouraged new concepts of design in the management of food in educational environments. ‘The ultimate may be an electronic belt, with an overhead infrared generator heating prepackaged frozen foods as they roll down the serving line. They will mean savings in refrigeration costs, a transformation of kitchen equipment and new approaches to storage and warehousing.’45
The management of choice and freedom in edible landscapes does have design implications. Different arrangements of the design and management of space express choice or lack of it. This was recognized within the experimental era of the 1960s when regimented rows of tables and chairs began to be replaced by more social arrangements, mirroring what was happening in the open plan classroom where adult control was marginalized.
The results were remarked upon by the Superintendent of Schools at Ridgewood High School in Norridge, Illinois where the cafeteria was divided four ways with movable doors to make separate dining areas. The doors, which created areas of increased intimacy, could be removed to make open spaces when required:
It provides an entirely different type of atmosphere… we don’t have gang feeding anymore; it’s not a military type operation. The students behave and act much differently when sitting at a table with only three or four from when they’re in the midst of a group of two hundred and fifty. The noise level is down and there are fewer discipline problems. We find we’ve been able to run our dining room without faculty supervision. The only adults in the area are two general aides whose job it is to clear up the tables.46
This expressed preference for small social eating areas within a large open space is a recurring theme over time, especially when young people themselves are consulted. A recent example can be found in the consultation process which accompanied the School Works programme of building improvement of the inner city London school, Kingsdale in the UK.47 At this school, where 67 per cent of children have free school meals, it was noticed that few children actually sat down to eat, making the atmosphere rather threatening for the younger or smaller children. When asked what changes they would make to the built environment, the children’s major concern was to reduce the size of the dining space, making smaller spaces for groups of children to eat together. ‘Girls and boys did not seem to experience this differently as they all seemed to dislike the ordeal of dining at the school.’48
Children and young people today crave to be treated with trust, and desire that the built learning environment might not resemble a school at all. Many have known little else than the fast food ‘McDonaldized’ fare on offer. The argument often put today by managers of school meals contracts is that reverting to the traditional school meal would result in total lack of uptake and the consequent haemorrhaging of the school community during lunch breaks to the local shops and cafes. This was noted as a problem in previous generations when ‘Pupils were going down-town for a hamburger and soda or coming to school with a couple of candy bars for lunch.’49 More attention to the ideas for changing the environmental context of eating, and especially to the ideas of children and young people, would arguably remove this barrier to change.
Resistance to the commercialization of the edible landscape in schools has been consistent since the introduction of the first vending machines in the late 1950s. When vending machines were installed at Redondo High School, California in 1958, students protested, carrying banners through the cafeteria with slogans such as ‘Iron Monsters’ and ‘One-Armed Bandits’. Later, the machines were sabotaged when students in metalwork classes fashioned ‘special slugs to knock the machines out of commission’.50 More recently in the USA, the State of California has pioneered anti-corporate campaigns with some success. Alex Molnar, professor of Education at the University of
Wisconsin-Milwaukee and director of the Centre for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education, has reminded us that the landscape of the school is popularly and traditionally believed to be benign. Therefore, he argues ‘in a school, everything that’s going on is supposed to be good for you. When you take that venue and you exploit it for a particular special interest, you do a lot of damage to children’.51
Designing for choice means allowing children and young people some freedom from overmarketed brands and promoting exposure to more healthy options. Children need to drink during the school day and it is clear from the ‘School I’d Like’ evidence that many simply want to be able to drink water when they need it. Bottled water is becoming ‘cool’ and schools in the UK have begun to experiment with water distributors and dispensers.
In the autumn of 2002, all 1400 primary schools in the city of Leeds were provided with water coolers free of charge by Yorkshire Water, the local service provider. The initiative was generated by concerns that children were not drinking sufficient water during the school day and that drinking water was accessed, if at all, via taps inside toilet blocks.
Such changes in the edible landscape of school resist the fast food fix that seems for many to be an inevitable feature of modern childhood and adolescence. Indeed, speed has more generally come to be an expectation of contemporary life.