In 2010, Buckingham County, VA committed to an emerging area of research that recognizes the role of a school facility in promoting healthy eating behaviors and attitudes. Collaborating with public health researchers, an interdisciplinary design team transformed two outdated schools in rural Buckingham County into a national model for healthy school design.
The Buckingham County Primary & Elementary Schools project is founded on a collaborative design-research partnership involving public health researchers from the Universities of Nebraska and Virginia. The design-research team first developed “Healthy Eating Design Guidelines for School Architecture” (HEDG 2012, Centers for Disease Control) to provide the general public with a set of replicable, evidence-based strategies that promote healthy eating by design.
HEDG strategies were embedded in the holistic redesign of the Buckingham project. Using a systems-based approach stretching across individual, organizational, and community levels, these guidelines demonstrate how the physical environment can influence healthy eating through multiple pathways.
Earlier this year, the Buckingham project culminated in the first-ever review of evidence involving physical environment influences on healthy eating across the entire school setting (2015, American Journal of Public Health). According to public health researcher Terry Huang, PhD, MPH, CPH:
“Preliminary data from mixed methods suggest there has been a gradual, positive shift towards greater connections between the staff and students and their school … Field observations suggest that students are more active and engaged in school as a result of the new architecture. The administrators and teachers also are more energized to incorporate healthy messages, attitudes, and activities into the school environment, which may in turn help students adopt a new outlook on health in the long run.”
As concluded in the American Journal of Public Health article, “research shows that architecture and design can contribute to healthy-eating outcomes.” School buildings and grounds are rarely neutral: they can either support or inhibit successful implementation of healthy eating programs. The Buckingham story proves that architecture and place-making, combined with transdisciplinary research, can produce a holistic, deep response to the need for a healthier population, starting with our nation’s youngest learners.