Eating in the round

Circular tables transform lunchroom environment 
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by Joyce A. Mitchell

LEAWOOD — Don’t tell your math teacher, but at Church of the Nativity School here, rectangles are now square.

When planners began to look at ways to renovate the school’s outdated lunchroom, principal Maureen Huppe realized she wanted it configured so that pupils would be encouraged to build relationships outside their usual group of friends.

“Long tables tend to shove some kids down to the end,” she said.

Circular tables, however, make it less likely that a child will be isolated. All children “regardless of where they are sitting” are included, she noted.

At Bethlehem Cafe, the school’s renamed lunchroom, 25 tables with bright red chairs replaced the traditional rectangular tables with attached stools. A large mural of a European street scene forms an impressive backdrop along one wall that used to be an institutional gray. Wallpaper has transformed pillars into bricks, and texturized painting makes other walls more appealing. Striped awnings adorn openings between the main room and the kitchen.

The transformation occurred over summer, with staff and parents pitching in to paint and wallpaper.

“There was a lot of ‘Mom enthusiasm’ to make it less institutional — to make it fun and to bring in our Catholic identity,” said Susan O’Neil, past president of the PTO. “Round tables build community.”

To break kids out of the routine of sitting only with their friends, the teachers assign students to different tables. Periodically, the students get mixed up again with a new group.

Students haven’t objected to not sitting with their best pals, Huppe said. In fact, two eighth-graders thanked the principal, saying the new arrangement is much less stressful because they don’t have the pressure of choosing where to sit.

“What started it was trying to help kids become more inclusive in their relationships with others,” Huppe said.

In the past, said assistant principal Stephanie Jancich, ostracism at school often started in the cafeteria. But the new round, assigned tables prevent “cool kids” from selectively excluding other children.

Students who lack certain social skills also have the chance to observe “how you socialize appropriately,” said Huppe.

“They can watch and see what it takes,” said Jancich.

Sometimes teachers join students at the tables to model good manners, such as not talking with full mouths, inclusive conversation, and resisting peer pressure.

As Huppe brainstormed with staff and the PTO about her vision for the dining area, the enthusiasm spread to enhancing the menu to include healthier alternatives.

“We offer a choice that is freshly prepared or more healthy,” said cafeteria director Carol Clune, who spent the summer experimenting with recipes.

The introductory year still offers some familiar items, because “you can’t just go cold turkey,” she said. That turkey sandwich, however, is a daily option, and it’s served on wheat bread.

The change does not mean that the Nativity lunchroom never sees pizza or hot dogs. But the pizza uses low-fat cheese, Clune said, and the mini corn dogs, made with turkey, have a fat count that is half the former version. The salad bar has metamorphosed as well into a fruit and vegetable bar with dressings, where students can take as many servings as they wish.

Kids are often suspicious of new entrees, she continued, but if they see spinach quiche several times and watch their classmates sample the delicious dish, they may try it themselves next time. Desserts are not served daily, but when they are, the selections are more fruit- than sugar-based: frozen fruit cup, orange juice freezies, apple cake, and carrot cookies.

“Carol is good about making kid food healthier,” said Huppe.

The trial and error of new recipes means that some are successes and some are flops. The carrot-zucchini cake, Clune says, though nibbled politely by students, did not make a second appearance.

Clune is encouraging school parents to serve new foods at home as well.

“If they were introduced to it at home,” she said, “kids would be more likely to try it.”

Variety, Nativity students are learning, is the spice of life — whether on their plates or around their table.

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