If it wasn’t for the constant hum of teenage conversation and the occasional raucous laughter, you’d almost think the ultra-spacious and modern cafeteria at Muscle Shoals High School was just a strategically placed trendy eating establishment where the clientele enjoys the atmosphere and good food.
But teenagers fill the space and it is their school cafeteria, just transformed into what their generation has come to expect from any food provider: an all-around palatable dining experience.
Child nutrition programs in school systems across the country are taking seriously the need to stay current not just with federally-required food items for students but with the cafeteria setting and atmosphere.
For many systems that means overhauls — from kitchen equipment to the dining area. Other systems do less in the way of renovation but still achieve the sought-after comfort and usability of a more upscale school cafeteria.
Muscle Shoals High School updated the cafeteria before the start of school this year, making it more student-friendly. It’s keeping with the national trend.
“We just gave it a good face lift,” said Muscle Shoals Child Nutrition Director Betsy Speer. “We added a special touch that was needed because kids eat out at night and on weekends so they’re accustomed to those surroundings. While our cafeteria isn’t a fast-food restaurant, we do want eating here to be a nice experience that they look forward to.”
With new seating, including eight booths and some round and kidney-shaped tables, the dining area is more conducive to conversation.
“It’s just more pleasant as opposed to long rows of tables,” Speer said.
There’s also a new menu monitor for students to see the day’s choices.
“I really like it in here,” Muscle Shoals senior Jacob Beasley said. “The booths are a good addition but also all the individual tables where big groups of friends can sit and talk. It’s a whole lot better than it used to be.”
Senior Blake Hale, a self-described “really social person,” said his school lunchroom is now more appropriate for high school students.
“I love that we’re no longer all forced to sit at big, long tables,” he said. “I appreciate these changes.”
Principal Bryan Lindsey said the comments from students have been positive.
“We want them to enjoy this area and their time in the cafeteria,” Lindsey said. “This is the few minutes in their day they can just relax.”
Sheffield High School renovated its cafeteria eight years ago, while Rogers High School in Lauderdale County did the same two years ago, focusing on art murals and seating that allowing for more socialization.
The child nutrition program directors in those school districts had the same hope in modernizing their facilities: to appeal to students.
The cafeteria revamping seems to be paying off, too. There’s been an increase in the number of students eating lunch at school this year, she said.
The Rogers school cafeteria feeds more than 1,000 students daily. Two years ago when school officials began planning the renovation they knew they needed some key components, including a larger kitchen and serving area, and expanded dining room.
“In the planning stages of our renovation, vendors would come by with photos that looked like a mall food court,” said Kathy Richey, the children nutrition program director for Lauderdale schools. “But when you have 1,000-plus kids coming through, you have to be reasonable. Ultimately, we want kids to think it’s cool to each lunch at school. For so many years, it hasn’t been. We wanted to get away from the institutional look.”
The cafeteria also has televisions in the corners and the walls are dressed up with hand-painted murals. “It makes a difference when students come into these surroundings,” Richey said. “They have a better mindset and they want to be at school for lunch.”
Lisa Singleton-Rickman can be reached at 256-740-5735 or lisa.singleton-rickman@TimesDaily.com.