The future of school meals: top 10 changes

Future school meals will probably have much in common with today’s, sadly, and I am not going into great detail in this entry about menus or nutrition and will make no attempt at all to be comprehensive. I will just list a few fun changes that lie ahead that result (mainly) from technology changes.

1 Augmented reality canteens

The world of tomorrow will be visually different, augmented reality playing a large part, with head up displays, video visors or even active contact lenses, allowing computer generated video and graphics to be put into the real word field of view. The canteen of today looks the same every day, but tomorrow, each day could be a new experience, with different themes of architecture, computer generated characters running around, and integration of games into the environment, to make lunchtime an exciting and stimulating experience

2 Multimedia food presentation

This will also allow school meals to become a full multimedia experience. Depending on what they have to eat, they would be shown various animations. The food could be made to look different, with kids competing with each other to force down plates of creepy crawlies or imaginary creatures, or seeing them in different colours. Games could be integrated easily, so that they have to hit a series of virtual targets on the plate to get points while they eat, or achieve a particular rhythm.

3 Enhanced foods

Nutritionally enhanced foods will be commonplace in the future. Scientists will understand far more about human genetics and will be able to add supplements to control a wide range of health conditions. But since different kids would be susceptible to different genetically related problems, foods will probably come in a range of options with lifestyle symbols to indicate the groups they are aimed at.  Kinds will wear a range of digital jewellery with wide range of electronic functionality. One of the functions would be to interact automatically with foodstuff selection, so that kids would see the best foods highlighted in their field of view.

4 Food manufacture, multilayer farms

As pressure increases both on land availability and food transportation distances, it is likely that some multi-layer farms will start up, especially around the edges of urban areas. They are really just multi-storey buildings that grow crops instead of housing offices or car parking. Each layer of such farms would use artificial lighting, powered by renewables elsewhere. This would enable fresh food to be grown very close to where it is needed. It will also be easier to ensure uniformity of nutrition, hydration and growth medium in such farms compared to conventional fields, and to control pests, so we should expect higher quality of foods, albeit probably also at higher cost.

5 Vegetarian meats are coming over the horizon thanks to technology progress in genetics and tissue culture. Today, some meat substitutes are made from soya and other plant derivatives, but genetics will increases the range and capability of plants to grow substances that can be used for higher quality meat substitutes. Similarly, tissue culture – making good progress already in medical field, will extend over time to provide a range of muscle tissues that can be grown in labs and later factories that have similar structures and textures to natural meats grown on actual animals. Although some vegetarians will still refuse to eat factory-produced meat even though no animals have been involved and therefore no cruelty, may will undoubtedly welcome such advances and start to eat vegetarian and factory-cultivated meats.

6 Electronic medilinks will be important accessories for many people in the far future. These will monitor health conditions by analysing blood pressure, heart activity, blood composition, nervous system activity and so on. They will be able to record and analyse some data and relay it if need be to distant clinics, possibly even to the authorities, insurance companies, or parents. Medilinks may be involved in school dinner provision. Perhaps pre-packed foods would be read by a child’s electronic equipment, using barcodes, snowflakes or RFID chips. Or smart trays would know which foods have been collected, and how much has been eaten, and could relay the appropriate data to the medilinks. Obviously they could alert kids or staff of any allergies or other conditions. The forms of medilinks could vary enormously, from deep implants, circuits printed on the skin surface, or jewellery such as ear studs or bracelets or rings, anything in contact with the skin. Some foods are known to contribute to a healthy diet, and others to detract from it. Most are needed in balanced proportions. By monitoring food intake closely, people can achieve a varied diet that is pleasant without compromising health, guided by information from their monitors and medilinks.

7 Local sourcing and community integration are becoming ever more important for food producers and suppliers. A lot of people now expect that their food should not have to travel too far and shop accordingly, but many also want to have more involvement in the production. They care about whether it uses genetically modified seeds, or non-organic fertilizers. The many people queuing for allotments may well be interested in virtual allotments too, i.e. paying a farmer to grow crops exactly according to their specification. And smart tractors using GPS can treat each part of a field differently. This would be an attractive option for people who want to eat better and more conscientiously but don’t have enough time or spare garden to grow their own.

8 Social media are already used for networking over lunchtime by almost all kids, but these will evolve quickly. Proximity comm-badges can communicate automatically with other nearby, swapping files according to context. Kids can swap favourite shows or music they just found, or synch their social schedules. Of course this can be done remotely, but it is more emotionally valuable when it is done in the context of physical closeness. But kids already use lots of games integrated into social media and it is obvious that this will extend into the canteen too, with augmented reality enabling avatars and electronic beings to be liberally sprinkled around, many of which would only be visible to pupils. So they could play lots of games without teachers knowing what they are doing.

9 Social skills tuition will be easily added into a canteen environment. I have argued for years that most of the stuff learned at school that is really useful to kids in the rest of their lives isn’t taught in the classroom but learned in the playground or canteen. Things like dealing effectively with other people, interpersonal skills, empathy, leadership, motivation… With AI and augmented reality  and social networking electronics liberally provided, teachers or staff could provide gentle guidance without anyone else knowing.

10 Calorie control is an obvious thing to want in a canteen. Of course, personal medilinks might be able to help, but they will probably be used only by people with health issues. For the rest, simple calorie counting could be achieved simply by using packaging that can easily be read by mobiles and, adding such data so it can be added at till when the child pays for the food. But technology can go much further. Today, we already have foods that are rearranged at molecular level so that our body can’t digest them, such as sugar with the sucrose molecules mirror reflections of natural sugar. We should expect with ongoing nanotechnology and genetic modification and factory assembly that many foods would be available with reduced calories to those kids that need them.

So, many changes ahead for school dinners. But we still won’t be able to make kids eat them if they don’t taste nice.

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