You Think They’re Too Young To Know…

Unknown-1Today my 2nd grade 7 year old daughter had a play date with 2 other 7 year olds. I overheard them talking and the one girl said she had told her mom that she was  having pain in her chest. Her mom took her to the doctor and they were told that she is going through early puberty, developing breasts, and will probably get her period by 5th grade. She then said that she’s going to have to start wearing a bra and they engaged in a lively conversation about bras. It  ended with a discussion about the latest hair dying rage for teens and adults, ombre, and then they went back to playing with  dolls.

Condom Sense

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The other day I attended the 3rd and final community meeting about a proposed condom availability program for our district’s high schools. The program would be offered to high school students who took a prevention class for half a year and met with the school nurse to discuss condom use. The meeting was well attended and the audience was made up of parents and students primarily.

The first speaker was from the county health department and he shared some staggering statistics about the rates of Gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and teen pregnancies in our state. In Erie County, which includes the City of Buffalo, our rates of Chlamydia were 25% higher than the state as a whole. Below is a link with more NYS stats. You can easily look this information up for your state as well.

http://www.health.ny.gov/statistics/diseases/communicable/std/

Additional we were told that:

  • There are 200 unplanned teen pregnancies in our district each year.
  • 44% of teens in BPS have had sex.
  • Out of those 44%, 35% are not using condoms.
  • 33% or 1 out of 3 BPS students have had sex with at least one person during the past 3 months.
  • 16% have had sex with more than 4 people in their lifetime (meaning up to age 17).
  • 10% had had sex before the age of 13.

That data came directly from the YRBS or Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a link to which I’ve shared below. Here you can read the questionnaire that is given to our kids. Some parents interpret it as the most salacious X rated content they and their children have ever been exposed to. Go ahead. Take a look and see what you think, then I’ll let you in on a little secret. Your kid might not be engaging in any of these activities but chances are they know about them. I know my kid did.

http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/yrbs/pdf/questionnaire/crosswalk_1991-2015.pdf

That evening one parent got up and said something to the effect of, “How dare our district put money into this lurid survey. That money could be much better spent.” He also came up with a couple more doozies: “These teens want to get pregnant so they can be put into the system,” and “Your slide report isn’t accurate because Chlamydia and Gonorrhea can be cured.” I wish he could have shared that last comment with the young student I met that evening who told me that her friend thought she was pregnant because she stopped getting her period. Instead she had Chlamydia that had gone untreated and will probably result in infertility.

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Who, What, Where  

The evening really got going when a student who graduated in 2009 got up to help facilitate the discussion. He said that when he was in school he and his friends didn’t spend a whole lot of time talking about academics. They mostly talked about sex. Who was getting it, how much they were getting, and where they were getting it. The Metro bus, school bathrooms, locker rooms, and hallways were some of their favorite places. Did you ever hear of the “World Famous Mustang Ranch”? Well they don’t  raise Mustang’s exactly. It’s the premier brothel of Northern Nevada. As this former student continued to speak I was thinking that our schools were starting to sound a bit like it.

After the student led discussion we broke into groups: those who thought the proposed policy was fair, those who thought it wasn’t lenient enough, and those who thought condoms should not be offered at all. Surprisingly, no one in attendance including the parent who thought teen pregnancy was a way of milking the system, thought that it was a bad idea to offer condoms to teens. That left the other two options and we were pretty much equally divided between them.

My belief was that the policy was fair. Our group agreed that an educational component, some sort of Sex Ed curriculum was necessary to properly inform students and engage them in discussions about risk behaviors. The other group felt like the educational piece did not need to be attached, just make condoms readily available, because everyone’s doing it anyway and no one listens to the stuff coming out of a text book about sexual health. I thought that was a very interesting point. How are our kids receiving health and sex education or are they receiving it at all?

Keeping it Realimages-4

In the past I’ve talked about the importance of an adopted district wide health curriculum. Now I want to propose the adoption of health education that actually speaks to our students. What if there was peer to peer education regarding Sex Ed? What if the former student speaker and others like him went into our schools and talked to the kids from a point of view that they actually understood? What if several of the teen parents who were in the audience shared their stories in our classrooms? Even if we incorporated some of these discussions into a Sex Ed curriculum I believe we would have more engaged students who might start thinking differently about the realities of risky behaviors. And trust me, even if we as parents are doing a good job of discussing this subject matter with our kids at home, I guarantee they are way more comfortable talking about these things with their peers. Remember back to when you were a teen. Were you kicking back with your parents and teachers talking about sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, or were you saving those conversations for your friends? It’s not to ever say we should abandon these talks as parents or educators, let’s just think about how to make it resonate with our kids in this day and age, not in what some of us might consider the dinosaur ages.

Suicide. Tonight I’m Sad.

There is a beautiful, young creative person that I know from afar. She committed suicide today. I don’t know if she had support groups around her. I don’t know if it would have mattered but I’d like to think that it would have. Our suicide service prevention site is below and so is a national hotline. Find out what your crisis center is and keep that information close.

http://crisisservices.org/content/index.php/suicide-prevention/

http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org

The Wonderful World of Recess

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My daughter began attending a Buffalo Public School two years ago. She was in 5th grade and that very same year New York State mandated recess. My daughter came home the day it was announced and was barely able to speak because she was so excited. I cried. Literally. I had just completed a huge playground build at her previous school, and both of my children knew the importance I placed on play and physical activity. This was such an enormous win for districts in NYS.

The first day my daughter was in such deep anticipation of recess that she skipped orchestra practice to see what exciting things this new world would offer. I found out that she skipped and I gave her a somewhat stern lecture on why it wasn’t ok but inwardly I was chuckling and giving her high fives. I had done a good job of instilling in my daughter a strong belief about the necessity of play.

Cogs in a Machine        images-2

That day she came home despondent. Recess wasn’t all that after all. They had sat in a room while the teacher tried to figure out what to do with them. It was like leaving a hectic job behind and going on a vacation to a remote beach. You get there and have nothing but time and you can’t think of what to do next. The adaptation to a leisurely pace of doing nothing other than taking care of yourself and recharging seems uncomfortable and daunting and almost not worth the adjustment.

They only had twenty minutes but that was enough time to make them all uneasy. How do you fill it? What do you do when your only task is to move around a bit, recharge, and take a much-needed break? Honestly it was sad to me. In our district and I’m guessing in many of yours, we had moved so far away from recess that the sheer notion of it left us utterly confounded.

The grumbling from teachers ensued almost immediately. Where do we have it? Who is going to supervise it? What does recess even mean? What kinds of activities are we supposed to be doing? Then simply, there’s no time for it. I heard all of this and I thought to myself, we have a deep-seated problem on our hands. Kids and teachers were functioning as cogs in a machine with no understanding of how to recharge. Everyone needed to step back, think about the school day in a way they weren’t used to, think outside the box about what really contributes to success in the classroom, and make a change. A healthy change, to which brain breaks, recess, and physical activity were integrated into each and every day.

Balls and Jump Ropes, and Games, Oh My!  images-3

As a parent I tried to help. I drafted an outline as to how we could create loosely structured playtime for the students. I recommended they survey the kids and find out what their idea of recess was. From that information I came up with the idea of creating a simple recess box filled with hula-hoops, chess sets, chalk, jacks sets, balls, art supplies, and books. These were all items that the kids associated with down time, play, and relaxation. Some were interested in the classic mum ball and even more were interested in Just Dance. One day my daughter told me that a classmate was so enthused while participating in Just Dance that he split his pants wide open. This seemed a minor complication from the incorporation of recess.

The Proof is in the Pudding CPAP_60_minutes

A lot of studies have been done that prove the importance of physical activity and the direct correlation to positive outcomes in the classroom. There are also findings that show that if a child’s schedule is changed to where they participate in a Phys Ed class one period prior to a class in which they struggle, they will improve markedly in that difficult class. At a workshop I attended we were told of a school that struggled with math scores. They changed schedules around and found that the students made up a year’s worth of material because of this change. Perhaps it wasn’t the easiest change to make but I am sure the positive end result far outweighed the difficulty of implementation. I have also heard of teachers who allow for brain breaks, little bursts of activity that the class partakes in for 1-2 minutes before each class. My younger daughter’s teacher uses the web site, go noodle daily to help the kids “get the wiggles out” and stimulate their brains. Regardless of age these breaks are important and there are lots of different activities to do.

http://www.qualityhealth.com/childrens-health-and-parenting-articles/kids-exercise-school-performance

https://www.gonoodle.com

http://www.actionforhealthykids.org/what-we-do/programs/game-on/about-game-on/get-involved/640-brain-breaks-and-energizers

Where are We Nowimages-4

The other day I attended a board meeting where I was asked to speak about the importance of recess and physical activity in our schools. But our district was already a glowing example of what’s being done right with recess and physical education, right? Wrong. There is something called “state mandated” and then there is something called being “in compliance”. Unfortunately in our district the majority of administrators have chosen the path of noncompliance. In the link below you can see NYS requirements. It might not be a bad idea to look into your state’s requirements and see if your district is meeting them.

http://www.p12.nysed.gov/ciai/pe/peqa.html

Why would administrators choose this path if they know the importance of physical activity as it directly correlates to success in the classroom? Three reasons; 1: They simply are not convinced that there is a correlation regardless of the endless studies that date back far more than a decade; 2: They are too bogged down in politics as usual and are blaming poor performance on large class sizes and lack of parent and student engagement, and 3: Money. At last week’s board meeting we were told that the 3 million we would need to hire the proper amount of Phys Ed teachers to get us into compliance just isn’t there and we’re probably not going to get it.

I don’t know a lot about school budgets but I am a firm believer in a mentality of “there’s got to be a way.” I’ve been told by people at City Hall who didn’t know I was a parent that there is surplus each year in every department and they end up scratching their heads as they try to determine how to spend it. It’s time to find the money and build a foundation of wellness that embraces whole child, whole school, whole community.

My Love Affair with Coke

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** Someone just mentioned this article to me and I had to share. It talks about how nutritionists are plugging coke as a healthy snack choice!

http://www.usnews.com/news/business/articles/2015/03/16/coke-a-healthy-snack-how-company-gets-its-message-out

It’s really too bad that sometimes the words “fight” and “wellness” show up synonymously in dialogue surrounding healthy kids. As purveyors of positive, we as advocates for children’s health are here to plant the seeds of positivity, embrace what’s good and right for our kids, and grow the support base for our cause. This of course assumes that there are no big corporate monsters getting in our way by claiming their stake and offering cash strapped districts money in exchange for branding rights. These corporations end up creating battlefields out of OUR schools.

Up until 2 years ago our district’s monster was Coke. We happily accepted A LOT of money from them and the district viewed it as a real win-win situation. Those funds went towards yearbook costs and prom and were a really useful source of revenue. I’m not sure if any of that money went towards health and wellness for our kids but it would be interesting to find out. Imagine! Coke in all its sugary glory promoting healthy lifestyles! A match made in heaven!

Let Me Rethink That

The thing is that some of us wellness advocates didn’t feel quite right about this relationship. We started questioning the support of this company and their presence in our schools in general. Here we were as a nation that had recently adopted the push towards mandated wellness policies for our schools, and we had started to require districts to make healthy changes to foods being offered in the cafeteria, yet we allowed our kids to grab sugary beverages during the school day.

Our district had an answer to the wellness advocate rumblings. Put the machines on lock down. The machines were only allowed visiting rights with the kids at certain times of the day. The thinking was less access would lead to less consumption of sugary beverages.Well, that still didn’t sit quite right with us. How were we supposed to be teaching our kids about healthy lifestyles when our district didn’t even support it?

The Monster is Slain, or is it?

So, after a very long and arduous battle with administrators (how would we replace that lost revenue?), we prevailed. How did we do it? We didn’t let up. We constantly brought it up in committee nutrition meetings, at board meetings, and in the community. It helped too that Coke really didn’t offer many products that met the new federal guidelines and they realized that the few products they could put in the machines would drastically reduce their revenue. However, around this time I found out that Coke had begun to work on a new product, a healthy fortified milk, and I wondered if this would be their opportunity to reinsert themselves in our schools.

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The Solution- Healthy Vending

We as advocates had had enough. We didn’t want to have to revisit the battlefield year after year as big corporations launched more and more “healthy products” that met the federal guidelines. And so the race was on. How do we fill the void of hungry stomachs and the soon to be dried up stream of lost revenue? How do we get those empty Coke machines out of our schools once and for all?

So we started to research. We found that healthy and vending could be synonymous in the form of the offerings from companies such as BuffaloStrive (www.buffalostrive.com), Venducation (www.venducation.com), and H.U.M.A.N.(www.healthyvending.com) These companies had access to all sorts of healthy options that met the federal guidelines! Dried apple chips with no added ingredients, unsalted pistachios, naturally seasoned rice chips, Kind bars, apple sauce squeezes, waters, unsweetened tea and naturally flavored fruit beverages, they offered it all! One company even offered a Farm to School program where fresh items like carrots and apples or hummus and whole-wheat chips could be offered. How cool is that!!

 Vending as Education

My first meeting with a district purchasing agent was met with real opposition. It began like this, “I hate vending and I think there is no place for it in our schools”. I kicked the wellness coordinator that had accompanied me to the meeting under the table. I proceeded to look him in the eye and explain what the new face of vending meant to me. It meant filling a void with whole, healthy items that anyone would find acceptable for a kid. It meant an opportunity to replace a dried up revenue stream. It also meant the opportunity to create an educational component where the kids would run the machines like a small business. They would assign school groups (student council, yearbook club, gardening club, etc.) and create the roles of CEO, CFO, book keeper, marketing person, etc. in an effort to learn what it’s like to act as entrepreneurs and run their own business. It took about 10 minutes to win the purchasing agent over and now he serves on our task force to create the RFP to identify the company that will serve our district.

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What We’re Doing Now

We currently have a pilot program set up for healthy vending because we were fortunate enough to find a local company that was just starting out in this arena. They agreed to put machines in two district schools to test the waters. We selected schools with different study body make up: One is a criteria based school with a highly engaged student population, the other is a school that struggles with attendance, test scores, and lack of resources.

So far our results have been impressive and have beaten the expectations of many who thought the kids wouldn’t be interested in healthy products in vending machines. At the criteria based school there is a line that forms each day at the machine and items regularly sell out. The company decided to put 3 machines in that school alone to keep up with demand. The other school had a slower start but robust nonetheless. We tweaked their product offerings to give them healthy but more brand identifiable products and this change made a difference.

Under the pilot the company is running the machines but once we launch district wide we will switch to the business model plan. We are considering so many fantastic opportunities as we move forward. One is to partner with private companies and community organizations and get them to sponsor the machines at any given school. The revenue that comes out of partnerships such as these could go towards funding current and future site based wellness initiatives, and also showcase these businesses as leaders in the movement towards whole child, whole school, whole community.

On a quick side note, I asked the purchasing agent how much revenue was generated with Coke in a month. It wasn’t a bad number but at more than double the amount for the same period of time, I think I’d prefer to stick with our healthy vending machines.

About Leelah

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Yesterday was the most glorious sunny Sunday in Buffalo NY. The temp hit 30 after about 2 months of bone chilling weather and I walked outside with my daughter feeling happy to be alive. I had just written a blog entry about cyber bullying and my daughter and I were discussing the topic when I told her I wanted to share a story. It was about a girl named Leelah.

Leelah died recently after throwing herself in front of a truck on a lonely, dark stretch of road not far from her house. She did not feel happy to be alive. Leelah had been born, Josh Acorn, a boy, and since the age of 4 she had constantly struggled with gender identity issues.  Her biggest wish in life was to transition to a girl and be accepted as Leelah, a kind, artistic, and intelligent young woman.

Sadly, Leelah’s parents did not support her wish to transition. “We don’t support that, religiously,” is what her mother stated after her daughter was already dead. In an interview she continuously referred to Leelah as her son. No acceptance.

Initially it appears that Leelah found  support amongst her peers. In a school environment where often times it seems  kids are ridiculed for being different as opposed to celebrated for their uniqueness, this is to be commended. But the support waned as her parents cut her off from school, social media, and her friends, and Leelah became more and more isolated.

Had Leelah’s parents not cut her off from everything, would she have had access to a supportive LGBT group at her school, in her community? What resources were available to her? If you go to the school’s web site: (http://www.kingslocal.net/Schools/KHS/Pages/default.aspx), it appears they have a lot of different clubs: everything from ski, yearbook, and philanthropy clubs to film, anime, and self defense clubs. Do they have an LGBT club? Does your child’s school have one? I’d like to think that in the face of this tragedy they’ve begun an LGBT club at Leelah’s school. My daughter’s school has a gay straight alliance and they offer resources for transgender students as well. There is a high level of student involvement within this group.

We need to be doing a better job in our schools and our communities to support these kids. When they come out and live as the person they want to be they need to be fully supported and their commitment to diversity needs to be applauded.

http://www.glyswny.org

http://www.lgbtcenters.org

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Justice-for-Leelah-Alcorn/752262548182134

I’m Sick of Smelling Like Peppermint

shutterstock_230559166I thought it was a good idea when I purchased my organic peppermint deodorant over the holidays. It was 11 bucks but well worth the purchase price to protect myself against the harmful aluminum in regular deodorants that can contribute to Alzheimer’s.  Now I’m done smelling like a Christmas tree and so is my daughter. Not to say that she’s abandoning hygiene. She’s  embracing it to an extreme! But this wasn’t so only a few short years ago. When my daughter was in the 7-10 age bracket she had a very different relationship with water. Hand washing, showers, teeth brushing, and general cleansing simply did not agree with her. It was like the commingling of nuts and raisins or peas and carrots. Some people feel that they just shouldn’t be mixed. So I had the arduous task of trying to instill an understanding of the importance of proper hygiene in my child. During those years that I fought my battle I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be great if this was part of a health curriculum that was being taught on a regular basis to kids in school? Doesn’t it seem like it should be a basic right for our kids to receive this fundamental information? Sadly as a society we think differently. If your school district has a mandated health curriculum that is offered on a regular basis from grades K-12 you are lucky. I guess our district feels that that education should happen at home. But what about the kids who don’t have that level of parent engagement? In our district those kids are in the majority. That’s right. MAJORITY. An adopted health curriculum that follows a student from K-12 is a necessity. It should not be viewed as an option.

Last year for several days I worked with a group of dedicated teachers and administrators to adopt a health curriculum. I’ll be honest, the work was tedious and difficult but the end result was that we selected on a company that could provide our district with the necessary materials. That was half the battle. Next is getting our school board to agree with us that these materials are necessary to properly educate our kids and move us towards adopting the foundation of whole child, whole school, whole community. I for one will be at that meeting imploring the board to find the money to support this very important initiative.

Girls Will Be Girls

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I was going to do my next article about healthy vending until I had a disturbing conversation with a friend at a party last night.

I was made aware of a twitter account that appears to no longer be in use but is still floating around in cyber space. The account was created by a few girls who wanted to peg classmates as whores and the expletive language holds nothing back. It is raw and does a good job of competing with the choicest language from any XXX web site or publication. It’s shocking and depressing content and what’s worse is that I recognized some of the names of the followers and tweeters. Good kids with engaged parents living in my own neighborhood. Some are even educators.

I don’t know why I’m so shocked. With 2 years under my belt working on student wellness issues you would think that I would have developed a thick skin. I’m aware of the pregnancies! I’m aware of the affluent suburban school district where 5th graders are engaging in oral sex under the staircase or in the janitor’s office.  I know these things! I guess what’s troubling to me is this other dimension that attaches these behaviors to social media. A place where shocking allegations and gossip will go on living forever and ever in cyberspace.

Do you know anything about Snapchat? It’s an app that’s widely used by kids where they can snap a photo or a video, send it to anyone they want, and then choose how many seconds they want it to exist in cyberspace. Ingenious! After just one second the damage is done!

Because of social media abuse I have heard of kids who have developed “reputations” in their communities, had suicidal tendencies, and have even committed suicide. As parents it is our responsibility to educate ourselves about social media and the deep impact it can have on our kids. Below is the list of the sites that your kid might be accessing. Take the time to check them out. Ask your kid if you can “follow” them on Instagram or “friend” them on Facebook (although I’ve been told that FB is for old people like me). If they say no you might want to ask why. Which leads me to another point about privacy. I’m  not the kind of parent who condones sneaking into their kid’s room to read their diary. I’m not the parent who wants to police their every move. I’m the kind of parent who, as uncomfortable as it might be, wants to be able to openly discuss with my children the perils they might face if they engage in abusive behaviors on social media.

http://www.twitter.com

http://www.snapchat.com

http://www.instagram.com

http://www.facebook.com

Not My Kid ! The YRBS. Your Resource. No Bullshit.

shutterstock_89867182 I’m guessing, but I’m not certain, that my daughters will have sex at some point in their lives, but two years ago I didn’t believe that. My oldest daughter was in 5th grade when the YRBS or Youth Risk Behavior Survey came out. It’s a national survey that is given out every two years to assess risk behaviors on a number of different “sensitive” topics. It runs the gamut from questions about dental health and nutrition to sexual health, drug use and suicidal tendencies. As a parent you have the option to opt out and the grumblings began immediately when I started asking parents about what they were going to do. I heard a lot of “not my kid” and “great that the schools have taken it upon themselves to introduce our kids to risky behaviors they know nothing about.” One parent even called the District and said the tooth fairy still came to their house not the crack fairy. Many of us had difficulty imagining our ten year olds engaging in drug use, struggling with depression, or having sex. But were we right to opt out? The results of the survey that year showed that many kids were engaging in unprotected sex with multiple partners. In our school district we have over 200 pregnancies each year. Last year we had 2 6th grade girls give birth. The survey also showed that many of our students have high rates of suicidal tendencies and depression and many are experimenting with prescription drugs. I don’t know if my child is one of them because I opted out. Not my kid. But do I really know this? Because of this survey I sat down with my daughter and discussed the sensitive subject matter of the YRBS survey. I told her I had made a mistake in not allowing her to participate but I was happy that it had opened up a dialogue between her and I and that we could talk openly in a safe home environment. And guess what I found? My 10 year old knew a heck of a lot more than I could have ever imagined. She might not have been participating in the behaviors but she certainly knew about them. YRBS has been an important tool for me as a parent because it has forced me to wake up and be aware of the issues and behaviors our kids are faced with. 10 is not too young. There is a reason this survey is administered to kids starting in 5th grade and the results prove it. With the data that we’ve collected in our district we were able to provide dental health care to more than 1500 students who were missing school because of dental health issues. We were also able to bring more guidance counselors into a school that had a high rate of depression and suicidal tendencies. You can read more about it in the article below. Finally, based on the number of students district wide who responded that they are having unprotected sex on a regular basis, we were able surmise that a “condoms in the classroom” program was a necessity. Not as a means of promoting sexual activity rather as a protection and an opportunity to educate. In our district YRBS is going to be offered again in October of 2015. This is exciting news in that we will then have collected “trend data” over the course of a 5 year period. We will be able to see if our efforts are paying off and if we are doing better at giving students the resources they clearly need to inform and educate about risk behaviors. I know that at least one seat that had been empty two years ago will now be filled and I hope other parents nation wide will follow. http://www.buffalonews.com/city-region/buffalo-public-schools/students-with-problems-show-need-for-in-school-mental-health-services-20141109

A Cafeteria Designed For Me

Atomic Lunches - Rethinking Health and Wellness within Our Schools

I’ve attended a few workshops where we’ve been asked to imagine our ideal cafeteria of the future and then collaborate to create a visual of what it might look like. They always share so many things in common: an abundance of fresh foods, farmers making deliveries to the school, children picking produce from their own school gardens, and color. Lots and lots of color in the varieties of foods to the brightly painted walls and chairs. Many of these cafeterias show children interacting with the food staff, wearing chef’s hats and acting as “Chef of the Week” with their newly created recipes. Funny how none of these depictions show a meek line of unsatisfied students slogging through what looks like a line at a prison to receive their tray of processed, prepackaged unidentifiable slop. Surprisingly they also never include an overbearing lunchroom monitor towering over the kids as they sit in silence as punishment for being too loud. Any of that sound remotely familiar to you?

Yesterday I came across this amazing project that was created by the innovative think tank, Ideo. They were approached by the San Francisco Unified School District to come up with a plan to really shake up their food system and fix a service that was underutilized and in debt. Their proposal follows. It’s all about thinking outside the box.

http://www.ideo.com/stories/a-cafeteria-designed-for-me/