Cafeterias Are Classrooms

Jodi Crimmins

Do you remember your school cafeteria?  I'll bet you still have strong memories of it. I remember mine very well, and it’s no surprise, since cafeterias are the heart  of our schools.

Growing up in elementary school I remember that we ate lunch in our classrooms and the only option for “school lunch” was paying your quarter for milk from the office. In middle and high schools, we ate in the multipurpose "Performing Arts Center" with the bleachers closed and foldable tables rolled out for the students. The local pizza place ran a concession, (Louie-G’s, still the best pizza ever!) and we were allowed to make the trek across the street to Prairie Center Mercantile to buy a burrito and a Jolt cola (don’t worry, I never drank that stuff). My point being, these are memories I still carry with me today, and our students will too long after they leave our halls! 

Cafeterias are where we learn manners, social norms, and how other families eat. They are community spaces that host after school clubs, school assemblies, and PE classes. We are teaching our students and community valuable lessons every time we walk them down to lunch or invite them in to use this space.

ASU National Sustainability Teachers’ Academy 3, Missoula MT, 2019 - We are better together, these are the faces of teachers committed to working toward sustainable cafeterias in their schools.

Working with a Team - ASU Rob and Melani Walton National Sustainability Teachers Academy

I have been fortunate enough to spend half of July in Missoula, Montana working with Arizona State University  Rob and Melani Walton National Sustainability Teachers’ Academy on ways to further sustainability in our schools. We are especially focusing on the part of our school systems which is central to all students’ experience, our cafeterias. One thing I walked away from with is the fact that cafeterias are classrooms.  We are expliciting teaching our students important values, ideas, and concepts by simply walking them to lunch each day. The physical space they are eating in, the amount of time they are given, the types of food and seating arrangements, all of those things are a part of  their education they take with them long after they walk our halls. We as educators need to be explicit about our cafeterias as learning spaces and be intentional with what we are communicating to our students through their time spent here. 

Many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals can be linked directly to actions we can take with our students in our cafeterias. 

Sustainability in the Cafeteria

Cafeterias also have a huge link to teaching sustainability and environmental literacy as we address the nutritional and physical needs of our students, and deal with our lunch waste. Sustainability is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the future. In our conference this last week, I learned there are three pillars, or circles of sustainability which are interconnected and at the heart of each sustainability issue. They are the environment, society, and economy. How we feed our students, what and how we serve the food, and what the expectations are for our lunch rooms are all taught in our cafeterias and have implications in all three areas of the nested model.

Image from:

Do we have inclusive spaces that promote well being, or is the opposite true? What does the space look like? Are kids happy there? Are these spaces promoting health? Is there evidence of student voice in the cafeteria? 

Sustainability problems are very complex and difficult to solve. The best way to solve these sort of complex issues is really understanding the problem itself. Sustainability is also place based, and even thinking of common areas within schools, solutions at one school will look differently than solutions at another, even with the same grade level, city, and district. This requires looking at all angles and action-planning for success. The cafeteria is the place where students can understand our sustainability problem and begin to take sustainable steps they can take back to their families and future families.


Reusable silverware and trays at Olympic View Elementary School replace plastic and styrofoam single use items. These were acquired through planning and budgeting based on student-led initiatives within the school.


House Bill 1114

This year the Washington State Legislature passed House Bill 1114, reducing the waste of food in order to fight hunger and environmental impacts (Sponsors: Doglio, Slatter, Fey, Peterson, Ryu, Fitzgibbon, Tharinger, Jinkins, Macri, Walen). Lines 18-32 of the HB 1114 states “Every year, American consumers, businesses, and farms spend billions of dollars growing, processing, transporting, and disposing of food that is never eaten. That represents tens of millions of tons of food sent to landfills annually, plus millions of tons more that are discarded or left unharvested on farms. Worldwide, the United Nations food and agriculture organization has estimated that if one fourth of the food lost or wasted globally could be saved, it would be enough to feed eight hundred seventy million hungry people. Meanwhile, one in eight Americans is food insecure, including one in six children. Recent data from the department of ecology indicate that Washington is not immune to food waste problems, and recent estimates indicate that seventeen percent of all garbage sent to Washington disposal facilities is food waste, including eight percent that is food that was determined to be edible at the time of disposal.”

This Bill lines out ways to reduce waste. There is a state wide stakeholder team assembling now to help with action planning and resources for getting started, as the bill requires a plan in place by October 2, 2020. 

What Will We Do Next?

Oak Harbor School District Sustainability Team and the ASU School of Sustainability Instructors pause for a photo.

For our school district, we are starting with a new initiative we are calling Zero Waste 2020, where we use education and practice to eliminate our food waste in our cafeterias by the end of 2020.

This work will focus on:

●       Being intentional of the presence of student voice in our cafeterias

●       Equity and food justice

●       Student leadership and college and career readiness through action planning and sustainability initiatives

●       Education on waste reduction

●       Diverting waste through sustainable practices

●       Share Tables in all our cafeterias

●       New policies for student waste reduction and family communication

●       Partnerships with local farms to collect food waste for animals

●       Removal of styrofoam trays and plastic silverware in all of our cafeterias



Kindergartners at Crescent Harbor Elementary learn about healthy food by growing their own.

What Will you do with your Cafeteria Classroom this year?

Think about the cafeteria space in your school. What steps or actions can you take now to improve the learning happening? What are the needs of your school and building? Consider hanging a PhotoVoice project on your walls, connecting with your health room and local food banks to see if they are interested in receiving food from a share table, or working with you classroom or grade level on student surveys to see what changes your students would like to see in their space. Cafeterias are important spaces for our collective health, society, and the sustainability of our planet. This work is best done together. Don’t forget to reach out to your colleagues, administration, PTO groups, families and students when tackling the issues unique to your buildings. I would love to talk more about your process too! Feel free to reach out to me as a partner on your journey if you would like to discuss ideas!


“Nothing in sustainability is easy, it all requires collaboration, it all requires group participation thinking about these really difficult problems with other people and trying out solutions of different kinds.” - Rob McGehee, Program Manager, National Sustainability Teachers’ Academy Arizona State University Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives

  • College and Career Readiness
  • Project Based Learning
  • Student Voice
  • Sustainability
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The opinions expressed by the CORElaborate Bloggers, guest bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD), Ready Washington or any employee thereof. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Washington State Teacher Leader or Guest Bloggers.

Jodi Crimmins Board

Elementary Garden & Sustainability Teacher on Assignment (TOSA), Oak Harbor Public School, Oak Harbor, WA