How My Students' Projects Landed in Front of Food Service Execs

Amy Lauren Smith 

One of the best parts of project-based learning is that it has the potential to end up much bigger than you planned. Last week, some of our 7th graders were able to present their suggestions for a healthier cafeteria—originally intended for an audience of 2nd graders—to a team of executives from the Sodexo Group, the multi-national conglomerate in charge of the food services in our school’s (and many others’) cafeteria.

When I posted pictures of the kids with the Sodexo execs on Twitter, I was contacted by quite a few teachers who were eager to make a change in their schools and wanted to know what lesson plans and activities had led us to that point.

The truth is, as with many good projects, where we ended up was not part of the original plan, but here are the steps and resources we used along the way.

Lesson 1: Finding inspiration from The Great Cafeteria Takeover

A huge part of skills-based health education is goal setting, and one of the best examples I’ve seen is from a group of students called “The Rethinkers,” who banded together after Hurricane Katrina to help rebuild schools in New Orleans. They focused on the quality of food available in their cafeterias, and took on Aramark, their main school cafeteria provider.

After watching this free 30-minute documentary, my students are always inspired to make a change.

Lesson 2: Exploring dietary guidelines around the world

Once they learn abut the politics involved in school food, my students are curious as to how decisions are made about what goes into our cafeterias.

So at this time, I have them research dietary guidelines from around the world and decide which ones are most relevant to our school community.

You can find student instructions and a project rubric here: Exploring Dietary Guidelines Around the World.

Lesson 3: Creating school-wide guidelines

Once the students have had time to dig through various countries’ guidelines, have them explore Michael Pollan’s Food Rules. Students will then write their three favorite guidelines on separate post-it notes and group them together on the board. At that point, we’re able to see the top 6-7 guidelines as a good fit for our class.

Lesson 4: Assigning groups, deciding on slogans, and writing descriptive food messages

Once we’ve narrowed down our top guidelines, I put the students into groups of 3-4 and assign each group a guideline for which they’ll write a clever slogan, message and description, and prepare to present.

Lessons 5-8: Designing the prototype and planning the presentations

At this point, the kids get ready for their audience by preparing a fun prototype to help explain their guideline.

Lesson 9: Presenting the project

Our audience members (an eager group of 2nd grade students) were very receptive, and the positive modeling from the “big kids” caused the little ones to really take note and pay closer attention to the snacks they chose later in the day.

As luck would have it, the Sodexo execs came by for a meeting that same week. By preparing our students to advocate for healthy choices to the younger members of our community, they were able to speak up when the more powerful members were around, as well.