The programs housed at the new Academies of Loudoun pride themselves in being on the cutting edge of technology and education. They boast a greenhouse that can run seven climate settings simultaneously, an auditorium designed with robotics competitions in mind, and professional-level auto mechanic garages and kitchens that serve as hands-on classrooms.
Well, the school’s cafeteria isn’t about to be left behind.
The Academies of Loudoun opened just four weeks ago as the new home to three magnet programs: the Academy of Science, the Monroe Advanced Technical Academy, and the Academy of Engineering and Technology. Visit the campus around noon on any weekday, and you’ll see 1,200 high school students jetting from labs, makerspaces and high-tech classrooms to one of several spots in the 300,000-square-foot building serving lunch. With wraps, salads, and other sustenance in hand, the students settle in for the 45-minute lunch period all throughout the building—in outdoor courtyards, on comfy couches, in classrooms, and on bar stools in the Innovation Commons.
“We’ve rethought school lunch—suddenly, it’s cool and hip,” said Stefanie Dove, coordinator of Marketing and Community Outreach for the Department of School Nutrition Services. “We’ve literally knocked down the walls of the cafeteria and knocked down the stigma of the typical cafeteria experience. Look at this—it’s so inviting.”
It looks like a scene out of a Cava or Chipotle, but multiplied. The team in Loudoun County’s Department of School Nutrition Services is calling that fast-casual approach to school lunch Café + Teria. The Academies of Loudoun is one of a few schools in Northern Virginia that is debuting that open cafeteria concept, which was designed with the help of Sterling-based Cuisine Solutions. Arlington Public Schools and Alexandria City Schools are also piloting the program.
Ahead of the opening of the Academies, Dove’s team in the School Nutrition Services Department conducted market research on what today’s teens want in a school lunch experience. “They want options. They want variety,” she said.
And the Café + Teria concept gives them that. Students can pick a base of grain, salad or a wrap; a protein (antibiotic-free chicken, ground beef or Paneer cheese); a topping of vegetables, cheese and sauces; and a dressing.
They can pick up their lunch in the Spark coffee shop, at the larger Café Ignition—the name a shout out to the nearby auto service garage/classroom—or from vending machines. These aren’t your typical school vending machines with sugary drinks and snacks. They instead allow students—using their student ID number and birthday to access money preloaded—to quickly purchase freshly made smoothies, chicken wraps, fruit, salads, and yogurt.
“We want to get students their food as quickly as possible so they have time to enjoy their meal, time with friends, or use their lunch hour to work on a project,” Dove said.
While the vending machines draw a line, Spark, the coffee shop, is undoubtedly the most sought-after corner at the Academies. Before classes start in the morning and at lunch time, hundreds of students line up at the shop, located on the third floor, to grab food or cold brew and hot coffee made from local roaster Lone Oak Coffee. Soon, the shop will offer lattés.
“Over lunch we’re getting 200 kids through here. That’s a lot of volume in just 45 minutes,” Academies of Loudoun food manager William Aviles said of the lunchtime rush. “The students and the teachers love the coffee options.”
Mary Zeno, a sophomore in the AET program, definitely drinks more cold brew coffee these days. “I get coffee almost every day to help wake me up. It’s so nice to have it right here instead having to run to Starbucks on the way to school.”
Aviles is applying some of the lessons learned from his experience in the restaurant industry. He said how the food and drinks are presented makes them more appealing to the eyes and the taste buds. Bold graphics point students to the food stations, and everything from the furniture to the names of the stations—such as Ignite Café—are modern.
Aviles said when he oversaw the food service at J. Michael Lunsford Middle School, he’d sell maybe a half dozen chicken wraps a day. At the Academies, he sells 40 or more.
“It’s all about how it’s presented,” he said. “I tell them it’s honestly the same food that they can get at their home high schools. More students are eating school lunch here. That’s because we’ve rethought school lunch.”
Ayesha Safeer, a sophomore in the introduction to health and medical program, said she’s definitely eating school meals more often this year. In part, because she loves that she can pick up her food at several spots throughout the building, giving her a sense of independence as if she was on a college campus.
“It’s all set up nice. At the Academies, if students are rushing to classes, they can just run by here and grab a coffee or a smoothie,” she said. “There’s more options here and it just tastes better.”
Loudoun County Public Schools is also partnering with Cuisine Solutions to provide much of their proteins, including beef, chicken, and scrambled eggs. The items are cooked using Cuisine Solutions’ sous-vide method, in which food is vacuum-sealed, then slow-cooked in hot water.
Café + Teria’s early success at the Academies has the school system rethinking how they build future elementary, middle and high school cafeterias, Dove said. The next new buildings that come online in Loudoun will likely be designed with the open food court concept over the traditional stuffy cafeterias lined with long tables.
“We want to make traditional cafeterias fun and exciting,” Dove said. “Our hope is that this will be a model for other schools and it will invite more students to eat meals at school.”