Using Food to Build Healthy Communities for Working and for Learning

We all eat. Food is a universal experience that brings people together and builds and sustains healthy communities. Sometimes, we celebrate the food experience through the mindful planning and enjoying of meals. But, many times we succumb to the realities of “dining al desko”—eating alone, at our desks, while working or studying. 

Bad habits carryover from school to the workplace. Students eat on the run while studying or while working “alone together” in coffee shops or libraries. Today’s multi-tasking students become tomorrow’s corporate team members who are accustomed to working and to eating in small intervals.

Dining and Food, A Shift in Mindset

Yet, the more we work with progressive organizations, including leading universities, like Stanford and Cornell, and companies, like Google and Twitter, we see a pattern. We are witnessing a shift in mindset where dining and food are embraced as collectively self-enriching.

We see organizations using food experiences as both cultural and innovation tools. Food can be embedded in experiences that help people to discover themselves in a learning context and to share about themselves in a professional context.

Design of Dining and Food Experiences

From a planning perspective, several practices for the design of dining and food experiences are positively impacting both academic and professional organizations alike. Common goals are aimed at increasing the amount of time people spend in food spaces. This is perceived as a way for people to take the time to connect with one another and to build community based on trust, reciprocity, and knowledge sharing. Other common goals include physical and social well-being as indicated by the promotion of healthy food choices and shared communal experiences.

At the recent annual SCUP conference in Chicago, Liz Burow, Associate Principal and HLW Director of Discovery, presented some of these shared planning trends.

CUSTOM, HEALTHY, FRESH.  Bring chefs and the ingredients into open kitchens to make food right in front of the customer’s eyes. 

STICKY SPACES. Through the design of furniture, lighting, and acoustics, create spaces that keep people lingering and invite them to “stick around.”

Google HQ, NYC

FLEXIBILITY, CHOICE, DIVERSITY. Decentralized serveries with seating between food stations encourage people to try different things and in smaller quantities. This also provides the flexibility to switch-out offerings, keeping people interested in returning to the space. 

LEARN, SOCIALIZE, REFRESH. Teaching kitchens are about refreshing the brain by learning something new and by socializing with colleagues or other students. These spaces are connected to or embedded within the working kitchens of cafes. They may also be designed as a “class in a cart,” which travels to the customer. 

EASY, CENTRAL, AUTHENTIC. Positioning food as the “heart of the space” is increasingly integral to campus and workplace planning. It aligns with everyday work and learning patterns and reinforces culture and values.

Steps to Creating Great Food Experiences

So, how do you do it? A lot goes into planning a great food experience and this includes thinking through and planning the services and operations, as well as the design for the space and experience. It takes a highly collaborative team working together from start to finish and a defined process and methodology to determine what is right for your organization. To deliver a truly engaging food experience, take the following critical steps.

·         SET YOUR GOALS TOGETHER.  Start with an interactive and inclusive visioning session with the key stakeholders at the table. This builds consensus and sets your project in the right direction.

·         SPEND A DAY IN THEIR SHOES. Get in the head of your customers to understand their work patterns, their bright spots, and their pain points.

·         MINE THE DATA. For space planning, it is important to look at the meal loads, turn around, peaks, and 12-month use patterns. Work with the food team to understand today’s requirements and to clearly plan for future loads on the space and services.

·         LOOK OUTSIDE. Take yourself and your team on tours of popular food spots in your local area to see what’s trending and what draws people together in these places.

·         PILOT, LEARN, ITERATE. Test a small concept before scaling it across your entire campus or setting. Use focus groups or other forms of customer feedback to learn what works and what didn’t work. Use those learnings in subsequent iterations of the concept.

·         MAKE IT FUN & TELL STORIES WITH THE SPACE.  Food spaces are an opportunity to highlight the culture and stories behind an organization or a brand and to showcase initiatives and attitudes towards health and wellness. Consider what story you want your space experience to tell and how it can become an interactive, fun, and engaging experience for your people.

Benefits of Sharing a Meal

Remember, sharing a meal is part of our routine, an activity where our authentic selves are allowed to emerge in the presence of others. If college is about discovering yourself, the workplace can be about sharing yourself. Food and the spaces where we eat can lower the barriers of interpersonal interaction; these interpersonal dynamics can then play out for the collective good of the organization.