Meeting Students Where They Eat: a qualitative investigation of students’ perceptions and experiences of their school cafeteria

Authors: Amy Rosenthal*, , Christine Caruso*,
Topics: Qualitative Research, Social Geography, Behavioral Geography
Keywords: School meals, built environment, education, school environment
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/4/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: 8229, Park Tower Suites, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


There has been significant attention to food environments in a variety of contexts and scales, including school food environments, with an emphasis on food availability and access. Obviously, meals are served and consumed in particular places; however, the effects of the environment on particular eating experiences has been understudied. This is especially true for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), as most studies of the NSLP focus on the foods served and consumed with little regard for the context in which lunch takes place. We address this gap by documenting students’ perceptions and experiences of the school cafeteria. Growing out of a larger multi-method study, we conducted 17 group interviews with 96 students, in six school districts across the US, encompassing an open-ended exploration of their perspectives on the environments in which they eat. The most consistent findings across sites indicated that cafeterias are loud, crowded, and often chaotic, especially the lunch line itself. Students desire time for relaxation and social interaction, yet their experience of lunch is often physically and socially unpleasant. Using insights from the study of proxemics, we argue that components of the built environment and practices of social incivilities interact to create experiences that can negatively impact students' social and emotional wellbeing. These findings point to the need for more research into the space of the cafeteria, as well as the role for student-centered and participatory interventions at these sites.

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