Bite Sized: Mahlum Re-imagines the School Lunch


In 2013, the AIA Seattle Redesigning the School Lunch Ideas Competition provided a unique opportunity for our office to rethink the school dining experience, transforming an act of pure consumption into an opportunity for social-emotional learning, developing both sympathy and empathy. School dining today has been reduced to an efficient feeding machine—a mechanized transaction focused on meal volumes and seat capacities.

Students eat too fast and consume too many empty calories, in a loud and emotionally charged setting with limited supervision. This out-of-scale environment perpetuates the culture of consumption, enables bullying and disrespectful behavior, and promotes poor eating habits.

Our submittal, “Bite Size” dining breaks down the scale of the cafeteria, and transforms large and impersonal spaces into simple, smaller, more intimate dining rooms distributed throughout the school.

These bite-size spaces seat four tables with seven students each and, when not in use for dining, provide much needed multipurpose breakout spaces to support learning. Students are responsible for retrieving their table’s family-style food cart from the central kitchen and wheeling in back to their cluster, where students serve one another, listen, talk, learn, and clear their plates. This bite-size approach to dining transforms transactional to ritual; out-of-scale to intimate; loud to quiet; and fast to slow.

Day-by-day and bite-by-bite, dining becomes an act of community and learning, naturally resulting in healthy outcomes.


Out of 46 submissions from 16 countries, Mahlum’s submission received an Honorable Mention, and was the only firm from the Pacific Northwest to receive recognition.