An old adage that’s well-known among chefs is the idea that “you eat with your eyes first.” Visual appeal is a critical part of the dining experience: we use all of our senses to make decisions about the food we eat. If it looks unappealing, you’re not going to eat it. If the surroundings aren’t equally visually inspiring, there’s a disconnect and you feel a suspicion that something isn’t quite right about the food, either. Visual appeal has been a battle that school nutrition programs have been facing for decades: food service areas are dull and institutional and yet program managers are under pressure to increase meal participation rates.

Most of us recognize this as the traditional school lunch line: institutional, bland, and uninspiring.

Improving the visual appeal of the food service area to increase school meal participation is a plan that Cobb County School District is putting into action through a massive undertaking that impacts nearly 70 schools, saves time on cleaning, and educates the students on wellness – while adhering to strict budgeting standards.

Emily Hanlin, Executive Director of the Food and Nutrition Services for Cobb County, searched for a solution that would help her increase meal participation and meet the requirements of her program. “The solution can’t be purely decorative. The money we receive is Federal and there are rules for how we use it to fund a project. This protects the students by ensuring that we’re buying good quality food and keeping up with the facilities’ needs – but it makes it challenging to pursue transformational change.” Hanlin found a path forward that would meet the restrictions for spending and accomplish her goals: nutritional and wellness messaging through decorative and functional wall coverings. Investing in solutions that encourage healthy eating and wellness activities was something that would be allowed – and BrandArmor Surfaces was the innovative product that met all of her needs.

A Revolutionary New Product

BrandArmor Surfaces is a commercial wall covering that is custom-designed to fit your visual goals, the size and shape of your space, and is strong enough withstand Sharpie® “art” and other forms of touch and tampering with a simple wipe down from your favorite cleanser. At first glance, BrandArmor Surfaces look and feel a lot like normal digital wallcoverings, but they contains a polymer that makes a permanent barrier between your walls and stains.

BrandArmor Surfaces are a commercial grade wallcovering that can be customized with graphics, logos, photographs, and murals. They are easy to clean, which means fewer harsh chemicals need to be used – perfect for sticky fingers touching the decals as they pass through the lunch line at school. BrandArmor Surfaces look and feel like traditional wallcoverings, but they work hard to protect surfaces and people.

Interested schools need to know that BrandArmor Surfaces products (including Walls, Ceilings, and Floors):

  • Wipe clean with a nonabrasive cleanser
  • Resist graffiti – even Sharpie® doodles
  • Stay bright, clean, and crisp – indoors and out

Prior to learning about BrandArmor Surfaces and how they could be used in Cobb County Schools, Hanlin says her School Nutrition Managers would decorate the food service area on a tiny budget with seasonal décor from the Dollar Store. She’d push her managers, asking, “How do we make it fun for the kids?” while asking herself, “How do I make it easier for the managers?” Not everyone has an eye for interior decorating and it’s a challenge to keep the serving area fresh and visually appealing on top of other (often more important) duties. She started allocating funds over a number of years and looking for a solution that would meet her requirements. She wanted something that incorporated nutritional and wellness messaging, improved the look and feel of the space, reduced that institutional look, and was easy to maintain.

Not everyone has an eye for interior decorating and it’s a challenge to keep the serving area fresh and visually appealing on top of other (often more important) duties.

With a solution in mind, Hanlin was eager to explore the design options available for her project. BrandArmor – the company behind Surfaces – works closely with each client to measure, custom-design, and manage the installation of their wall, floor, and ceiling coverings. For Cobb County, this means careful measurement of each of the 67 school’s food service areas, custom designs for each school (every food service line gets its own custom café name and sign), and the installation of the decals. “The designs were a collaboration between Cobb County Food and Nutrition Services and our design team,” says Jonathan Baltic, President of BrandArmor. “Emily gave us her list of needs and our creative team lead by Bill George developed designs that met her goals. We have images of kids participating in fun physical activities, like yoga and dance, enticing visuals of bright, beautiful fruits and vegetables, and messages encouraging balanced, healthy eating. What’s even better is knowing that along with reducing that institutional feel, we’re providing the schools with something that’s incredibly durable and will last for decades.”

“It’s bright and beautiful!”

Prior to going on summer break, one Cobb County elementary school food service area was completely retrofitted with the BrandArmor Surfaces decals. The staff and student responses have all been positive.

  • “Love it!!! It is so bright and puts a smile on the students’ faces when they see it!” 
    Holly M., Kindergarten Student
  • “My first impression was, ‘wow! Thanks for brightening up our school!’”
    Megan H., 4th Grade Student
  • “It’s bright and beautiful – like the women who prepare and serve the lunches at Bullard. Great job!!”
    Diana Rockefeller, 3rd Grade Student
  • “I could not believe how much energy the new colors and creatively placed décor brought to our lunchroom! Our students’ faces lit up as they saw them. It was awesome to eat in a place as beautiful as our Café!”
    Ms. V. – 5th Grade Teacher

Part of Emily Hanlin’s process is to examine this year’s metrics compared to the upcoming school year to see how much of a difference has been made on meal participation. The BrandArmor Surfaces decals in the pilot school appear to have made an immediate impact: even packed lunch kids wanted to come through the lunch line to see the new décor – as well as be exposed to the nutritional and wellness messaging. Hanlin feels like that’s half the battle, saying, “We want to bring students into the serving area. If they don’t come into the serving line, you don’t have the chance to win them over.” The premise is that students who wouldn’t normally try a school-prepared lunch may try it now that they have seen it being made and served. The schools in Cobb County already keep records on participation rates, number of lunches made versus served, and new foods tried, such as the “Try Day” fruits and vegetables they bring in from local farmers.

Spotting BrandArmor Surfaces Out and About

According to BrandArmor, you may have already encountered their Surfaces and didn’t even realize what you were seeing. These resilient polymer wall coverings that are both stain-free and are commonly found in locations that are high-touch, require visual appeal, and need a low-maintenance solution. BrandArmor Surfaces are frequently used in:

  • Hospitals
  • Medical and Dental Offices
  • University locker rooms
  • Hotels
  • Gyms
  • Offices
  • Retail locations

BrandArmor Surfaces uses a special film designed to apply directly over any (relatively) flat surface – including the concrete block most often found in schools. The installation team applies BrandArmor Surfaces and uses heat to set the entire surface with the results looking hand-painted. Schools like Cobb County use them to educate and protect. Other organizations use them to reduce maintenance and build their branding.

For Emily Hanlin, time will tell – as well as the number of trays her team fills with delicious, nutritious school meals: “We’re building our brand as the largest quick-serve “restaurant” in Cobb County as we roll out BrandArmor Surfaces to our elementary schools and then expanding to update the food service lines for our middle and high schools.”