by Rachel Bramwell, Strategist

Obesity has become a national epidemic. In San Francisco, the obesity rate among children ages 5 – 18 is 33%. That rate is similar to the national average and has stayed the same for roughly a decade. Diabetes, obesity and other harmful health conditions could cost San Francisco’s health system as much as $28 million a year.

San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is well positioned to address this issue. It serves 58,270 children, of which 61% qualifies for free or reduced lunch. Since January 2013, SFUSD’s Student Nutrition Services has taken concerted measures to improve its food system, starting with $9 million contract with Revolution Foods, a national vendor that provides pre-plated meals that meet USDA child nutrition standards.

Sesame chicken wraps, veggie taco salad, Hawaiian meatballs with island style rice now replace the previous fare of frozen corn dogs, pizza, chicken nuggets, and french fries. But each meal come at an average cost of $3, which exceeds the budgeted $2.74 per meal cost. While only a $0.26 difference, 4.8 million meals and 1 million snacks annually quickly adds up to a budget deficit. The meals provided by Revolution Foods address the singular issue of meal nutrition and but fail to present a financially sustainable solve to what is a systems-level problem.

SFUSD identified a pressing need to systematically reform the school lunch program into a “student-centered, financially-stable system that engages kids in eating good food”. Funded by a grant from the Sara and Evans Williams Foundation, SFUSD’s Student Nutrition Services contracted the design consultancy IDEO to re-envision the school dining experience. The firm devised a long-term, multi-pronged strategy made up of ten design recommendations ranging from space renovation to communal eating to healthy vending machines to supply chain consolidation

SFUSD awarded MKThink a contract to investigate in detail IDEO’s recommendations for a regional kitchen strategy to insource meal preparation and delivery. The strategy called for identifying and equipping central kitchen hubs for meal preparation and equipping satellite kitchens to reheat and serve meals. Under the current operating model, kitchens will need to have the capacity to produce 3,100 meals a day increase to 10,000- 11,000 meals as student participation grows.

MKThink applied a systems-thinking approach to develop a scenario model that explored renovation of the district’s existing kitchens to support preparation and delivery. The approach examined the components of the supply chain systems to understand the interconnected and interdependent feedback loops that define the properties of the system as a whole.


Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 2.05.08 PMOutputs_Inputs














We started by visualizing the system to define the system’s boundaries, map the inputs and outputs, and identify the key feedback loops. , The supply chain itself made up of individual components, nestled within a large the school lunch program, which in turn is nestled within the even larger food system that includes food deserts, the welfare system. The focus on the supply chain part of the system defined the boundaries. We pinpointed the inputs and outputs and feedback loops as follows.


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Data Analysis


The system map informed our research objectives and strategy:

1. Produce a kitchen and dining area assessment to survey, analyze and evaluate 105 schools.

2. Document current equipment conditions and space utilization of each site. Provide equipment upgrade costs.

3. Identify kitchen spaces at existing school sites that could be utilized as regional kitchens for high volume production.






Informed by research data, MKThink developed five scenarios for a regional kitchen strategy to support the insourcing of meal preparation and delivery.















MKThink advocated for Flexible Growth and Streamlined Growth.


Flexible Growth: Financial Analysis


Flexible Growth: Kitchen Prep & Receiver Sites


Flexible Growth: Meal Prep Kitchens


Streamlined Growth: Financial Analysis











Flexible Growth tests the scenario of five kitchens to produce 12,798 meals per day. It is assumes growth in student participation in the meal program to 60% and a SNS meal production growth of 75% over over a nine year period. It estimates space needs of 1.5 sq ft per meal.

Streamlined Growth tests the scenario of one central kitchen. It assumes the same student participation and meal production growth rate over a nine year period. It estimates space needs of 1.5 sq ft per meal and a rate of 25 meals per labor hour will be achievable in a kitchen of this size (15,600 sq ft).

Systems strategies are designed to be sustainable long-term solutions, not quick fixes so they require phased implementation. They replace vicious cycles or feedback loops with virtuous ones that improve the human condition over time. Fresh and nutritious school lunches can have a lifetime impact. Healthier food improves academic performance which in turn increases pursuit of higher education which translates to higher earning potential that breaks the cycle of poverty. Nutrition education can influence lifelong eating habits that improve health and wellness,  reduce disease rates, and limit demands on the healthcare system. Cumulatively, this makes for a longer, healthier, and more fulfilling life.

MKThink’s mission is to create intelligent spaces that improve the human condition that elevate life and model sustainability. Its work for for SFUSD is an example of just that.