May 10, 2013 -- In the fight against childhood obesity, the weapons have been many. Schools have tried exercise and education, and the government has mandated healthier school lunches. Now a school district in Virginia is believed to be the first in the country to try something radical -- redesigning the school building, itself.
"It's not completely out of thin air," said public health expert Terry Huang, who helped spearhead the project. "It is rooted in a long history of reinventing school designs to promote learning and mental well-being. We simply took that one step further."
The result is a new elementary school for 970 kindergarteners through fifth graders that opened this school year in rural Buckingham County, Va. From the ground up, the school is designed to promote activity and healthy eating.
Just walk into the cafeteria and you can see this is no ordinary elementary school.
"One of the most striking differences is the openness of the eating space," said pediatrician Dr. Matthew Trowbridge, who also consulted on the project.
Students can look into the area where the food is prepared, and they can look outside to a planned school garden, where vegetables will soon be planted.
"The point is that you can see where the food is grown, where it is prepared." said Trowbridge, who is an assistant professor and associate research director in the department of emergency Medicine at the University of Virginia Medical School. "You are connected with the food service people yourself. It's very much of a restaurant-style feel."
The cafeteria also boasts a compost center, and what's called a food lab to teach about healthy foods. It features a kids' kitchen.
"The idea is if the kids can grow their own vegetables and make recipes in the kids' kitchen, it can help them make healthier choices," said the principal, Pennie Allen.
"We tried to fundamentally change the cafeteria," said architect Bob Moje, president of VMDO Architects, the Charlottesville, Va., firm that designed and built the new school. "In most all schools, the cafeteria is seen as detrimental to learning. How fast can we herd as many kids through the eating process?"
Instead, Moje said, "The dining experience ought to be part of the educational program for the school."
Moje half-joked that "public school cafeterias are the perfect training ground for fast-food customers" because there are few menu choices and little time to eat. He's trying to change that.
Those involved in the project did borrow a page from food marketers.
"The fact is, the food industry understands the power of placing," said Trowbridge, pointing out that beverage companies place vending machines in easily accessible areas.
So in Buckingham, it's the water fountains that are placed prominently and feature colorful signs about how drinking water is healthy.
"It was trying to make the healthy choice the easy choice throughout the school," said Trowbridge.
Using Architecture to Curb Obesity
Huang and Trowbridge have published research on using school architecture to promote healthy eating.
"The guidelines are quite comprehensive," said Huang, who is the director of health promotion in the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
However, he said, even existing schools can adopt some of the practices.
"There are many elements that any school can learn from," said Huang, who did this research while at the National Institutes of Health.
Those elements include "simple things like placing fruit in a beautiful bowl next to the cashier, instead of chips," he said. "Research has shown that this increases the likelihood that students will actually pick a fruit."
In Buckingham, an ethnically diverse district where 60 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches, the changes go far beyond just the cafeteria and food choices.
The school has two levels, with beautiful stairs that lure kids to climb them. It even has cutting-edge chairs that allow kids to move.
"Our chairs are made to wiggle", said Principal Allen. "The regular student chairs just move, they have some give in them."
Fourth grader Durwin Westbrook said he liked the new school, including the cafeteria.
"I can sit anywhere I want at the table," he said.
Kindergartener Elly Abruzzo also found something to like.
"I get to watch them cook," she told ABC News.
Those behind this innovative school are gathering data to try to quantify the influence of the school building on activity levels and eating habits. There are no formal results yet, but the architectural project designer believes they've already succeeded on many levels.
VMDO's Dina Sorensen said the kids don't want to go home at the end of the school day.
"Just seeing how joyful the kids are in that space has been really rewarding," Sorensen said.