( Wichita, KS – Just how posh does a school cafeteria need to be?

Is the classic, utilitarian style of long, unassuming tables and a wide open space enough? Or does it need to be something more, perhaps with the feel of a bistro? Those are just some of the pressing questions Wichita USD 259 officials hope to answer after inking a contract authorizing upward of $250,000 to give about 10 district lunch rooms a facelift.

But is all this about form or function? It may depend on who, and when, you ask.

School board members passed the agreement with Wisconsin-based Palmer Hamilton on Nov. 25. The day before, the Wichita Eagle reported comments from district operations director Darren Muci regarding the aesthetic angle of the endeavor.

“For some time, we have been looking at how we can beautify, improve, enhance the look of our school cafeterias,” Muci told the Eagle. “Some of them have too much of an institutional look about them and really doesn’t provide for what we think is an appropriate eating environment.”

But Superintendent John Allison downplayed potential appearance improvements after the contract’s approval. Muci did the same when contacted later that week.

Rather, Muci said the focus is on improving efficiency to reduce wait times, giving students more time to socialize instead of being stuck in a serving line. The district also aims to turn the lunch room into a usable space conducive to more than just serving meals.

“A cafeteria can be an extension of the study hall area, if we have the right furniture or setup or meeting space,” Muci said.

Palmer Hamilton’s website touts those schools with redesigned lunch rooms seeing meal service revenue increase anywhere from 24 percent to 74 percent. And according to school officials, only about one in four students at Wichita’s East High regularly eat lunch at school. USD 259 permits junior and senior students to eat off-campus during lunch.

It seems safe to assume that, whatever the district’s final plans are, the measuring stick will ultimately be butts-in-seats come noon hour.

So, with such an emphasis on encouraging students to actually eat at school, it seems only logical the district would ask its target audience what they want. Muci said Allison regularly meets with student advisory groups – tackling tough issues like what kind of pizza they’d like on campus – but said the district has yet to broach the lunch room redesign topic.

Rather, Palmer Hamilton will receive about $35,000 initially to form a plan of action. From there, the district has authorized expenditures not to exceed $250,000 from the nutrition services budget, which can be used only for cafeteria-related expenses.

“We have improved many of our other facilities throughout the course of two bond programs, and this is one area where the nutrition services department wants to take a good look,” Muci said.

“This is not an open checkbook concept where we’re going to spew out dollar bills, we’re going to research this,” he said. “We don’t envision that we will have anything that will be out of line.”

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