Some schools have banned junk food. Some have added longer gym classes, new nutrition classes, or even required standing desks. But childhood obesity rates are still about three times higher than they were in 1980. Now schools are adding another tool to the fight for fitter kids: Architecture.
A 1950s-era elementary school in rural Buckingham, Virginia was redesigned to help kids lose weight. The architects worked directly with public health researchers to change a long list of details based on current research, from designing a kitchen with dedicated storage space for local, seasonal fruit, to placing healthy meals at kids’-eye level in the checkout line. In a teaching kitchen, third-graders can learn to make healthy meals from the foods they grow in the school garden.
“We all know statistics about the childhood obesity epidemic, and we all know that despite our best efforts working very intensely at the individual level–or even at the population level–we haven’t made as much of an inroad as we really want to,” says Matt Trowbridge, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, who helped create the design guidelines.
The design of a school itself might matter as much as something like a gym class. “The environments in which we live affect not just our behaviors, but our lifelong attitudes about things like healthy eating and active lifestyles,” he says. “It’s also clear that it’s so much better to help prevent children from becoming obese than to try to help adults lose weight. So that makes school environments incredibly important.”
Combing through all of the available studies on school design and healthy eating, they came up with a list of dozens of design strategies architects can use. At the Virginia elementary school, one of the keys was making the commercial kitchen visible from the dining room, so students could watch as their lunch is made. Nearby, the teaching kitchen gives them a kid-safe way to learn how to make their own food, and a food lab was designed for food-related science experiments.
Some of the design guidelines are more subtle, like placing salad bars near checkout stations, or deliberately adding space in a kitchen for preparing fresh food (and eliminating deep fryers). Beyond the healthy eating interventions, the school was also designed to keep kids more active, with features like inviting stairways, walking paths, and furniture that flexes as students sit, so they aren’t completely still.
The school gardens also offer community space for growing food, so whole families can start eating healthier. “We are dealing with entire communities, rural-to-urban, that are struggling with healthy food access and food deserts,” says Dina Sorensen, project designer from VMDO, the architecture firm that redesigned the elementary school. “How can those communities impart the value and importance of healthy food at school in the context of their own need to re-build healthy food infrastructure?” The Buckingham project, she says, shows a school truly becoming a community asset and a teaching tool.
Since the school was built in 2013, the architects have continued to use the healthy eating design guidelines in other school projects. The guidelines are also free for other designers to use. A redesign can have a major impact; Sorensen points out that most school buildings are at least 50 years old, with “kitchens and cafeterias that have hardly been touched since the idea of school lunch came about in the 1930s.”
“We can’t just change what’s on the menu and expect to see the changes we hope to find in children,” Sorensen says. The key, she says, is for architects to work with multi-disciplinary teams, since a single group or solution on its own likely can’t make enough of a change in health.
It’s an idea that’s quickly spreading. The American Institute of Architects now has a “design and health” leadership group with a team of experts from a range of fields. And similar collaborations are starting to happen for other social issues.
“Architects are expert at designing buildings, not studying people and their behaviors or the impact architecture has on a whole spectrum of human and ecological systems,” says Sorensen. “But we can collaborate and cross-pollinate with those who do, and marvel at the results of a new architecture for the sustainable future.”