Taming the Lunch Line

Decreasing student enrollment in Minneapolis, and the subsequent shuttering of some nine of its public schools, has been big news in the last couple of years. Less known, perhaps, are the pressures that have resulted at remaining schools—especially in the cafeteria. 

For example, Whittier International Elementary in South Minneapolis is a popular selection in the state’s school-choice lottery system and thus has seen enrollment go from 350 students in 2005 to nearly 500 in 2007. With this population surge, about a hundred kids are shuffling through the cafeteria every thirty minutes—for five consecutive lunch periods. Needless to say, things can get a little wild in what is already, by tradition, one of the more lawless realms at any K-12 institution. Seeking to impose some order, Whittier officials did a very au courant thing: They outsourced the problem to a consultant.

Nancy Burns
is a certified classroom management trainer who has coached over ten-thousand teachers in her nine-year career. But in 2001, she began scrutinizing school lunchrooms. “I would do a classroom management conference and so many questions would come up about improving the cafeteria. Obviously, there was a need to make lunchtime work better,” she said. Since developing a training curriculum called “Cafeteria 101: Setting up for Success,” Burns has fully made over three school lunchrooms and consulted on several others. As far as she knows, this petite forty-year-old is the only person in Minnesota who specializes in this area.

“Truly, I’m passionate about cafeterias,” said Burns, even as she admits how goofy that sounds. Her zeal stems from the idea that a relatively calm, well-run lunch period has benefits that reach beyond the cafeteria. “It affects the atmosphere of an entire school,” she pointed out. “Teachers can pick up kids and dive right into learning without wasting time recovering from a madhouse feeding frenzy.”

How does Burns keep a busy cafeteria from devolving into a scene worthy of Animal House? She takes her cues from the biggest people-moving industry on earth. “A successful lunch program is like a well-run airport,” she said. “It has clear momentum and destinations, which are provided by signage, traffic flow, and zones.” She uses the typical flight experience as an example. “A plane is a place where you expect people—the flight attendant, maybe even the pilot—to be standing in a certain place wearing a uniform. Now the cafeteria staff and student helpers wear colorful aprons with handy pockets. They know exactly where to stand within their zones and children will always know where to find them.”

Another strategy involves colored tape. “We literally marked out the line on the floor to help children and adults know where to queue up. It’s an enormous stress reducer when there are clear guideposts to the next transition,” said Burns. “Transitions, even small ones, are difficult for young children.”

To adults, these “transitions” are merely a list of things one does in a cafeteria—get in line, pay for your food, grab some napkins, find a table, and so on. But to young children they can be sizable hurdles, especially when you factor in the stresses from hunger (the last lunch period at Whittier is at 1:40 p.m.) and the decibel levels in a typical elementary school lunchroom. According to Burns, the trickiest of these transitions involves condiments. Just try watching a hungry third-grader as she struggles to open a mustard packet—tears might not be common but frustration will be plentiful. Or worse: “Picture the kindergarten student who navigates the line and gets her hamburger,” Burns said. “But she doesn’t realize that it doesn’t have ketchup until she sits down. Now how do your procedures accommodate her?”

To avoid students swimming upstream against the prevailing cafeteria current like ketchup-seeking salmon, Burns emphasizes prevention—a kind of “leave no condiment behind” approach. “The system that the lunch staff liked best involved foam-board signs,” said Burns. Emphasizing that the staff, who are there every day, have the last word, she made vertical signs that each pictured one of the day’s meals at the top, along with examples of recommended condiments. “I literally Velcroed ketchup and relish packets to the signs as a visual cue,” she says. And when that plan fails? “That’s when the colored aprons with their fabulous pockets come in.” All lunch room staff and helpers carry condiments with them.

Establishing procedures is just one part of Burns’s job; she also trains lunchroom monitors on addressing throngs of young diners and managing the various tables: a peanut-free table for those with nut allergies and a “loss of privilege” table where students are consigned for poor behavior. And finally there is a “food sharing” table for unwanted items; if a kid wants something from this table, a helper brings it to her. It sounds odd, but this set-up was established to prevent bullying. “Food cannot travel from child to child because it can lead to intimidation,” explains Burns. “We don’t want ‘gimme your cookie or else’ to ever be confused with sharing; this is just another safeguard we’ve put in to make lunch better.”