Most school districts want to find fun ways to get students to engage in healthful behaviors. At Wissahickon Charter School in Philadelphia, management company Linton’s Managed Services has experimented with changing the lunchroom dynamic by getting rid of the traditional long tables, foam trays and cafeteria lines.

Instead, students at the K-8 school eat at round tables that encourage family style social interaction and communications.

Students take turns as donning chef coats and serving as table captains. Each gets one table he or she is responsible for. Their duties include setting the table (with silverware) and bringing over the food from the service window.

Because over 80% of the nearly 500-student Wissahickon enrollment qualifies for free or reduced price lunches, the meals are individually portioned. The meals are generally the same for everyone unless they have special dietary needs. Teachers submit the roster of kids getting meals, which are then entered in the POS system for National School Lunch Program tracking purposes.

“We manage dining in a number of private schools where we have true family style dining,” says Russ Hengst, vice president of operations for Linton’s. “We knew we couldn’t do that here because of the federal school meal regulations, but we thought we could still do something similar with the seating. When we talked to the school officials about it, they were very encouraging, so we decided to try it.”

The school and Linton’s also emphasize nutrition education with monthly healthy eating/lifestyle messages conveyed through posters, table tents and other materials in the cafeteria.

Environmental responsibility is also part of the program, with three quarters of the waste composted (including milk cartons). Each table has three waste containers where students deposit their scraps after the meal. One is for food, which is sent to be composted, one for water and one for paper products. The plates are durable melamine, which is reusable, as are the permanent ware utensils.

Linton’s operates dining at 23 of Philadelphia’s 84 charter schools. It has worked with the system for the past four years as Philly charters have moved to doing more onsite prep. Dining at Wissahickon is overseen by a CIA trained chef, William Murray.