If only fixing the easy problems was that easy

The problems in getting San Francisco high school students to use the separate line for free lunches in San Francisco is not surprising

Lunchtime “is the best time to impress your peers,” said Lewis Geist, a senior at Balboa and its student body president. Being seen with a free or reduced-price meal, he said, “lowers your status.”

School officials are looking at ways to encourage more poor students to accept government-financed meals, including the possibility of introducing cashless cafeterias where all students are offered the same food choices and use debit cards or punch in codes on a keypad so that all students check out at the cashier in the same manner.

Only 37 percent of eligible high school students citywide take advantage of the subsidized meal program.

Many districts have a dual system like the one at Balboa: one line for government-subsidized meals (also available to paying students) and other lines for mostly snacks and fast food for students with cash. Most of the separate lines came into being in response to a federal requirement that food of minimal nutritional value not be sold in the same place as subsidized meals – which must meet certain nutritional standards.

It’s frustrating to encounter situations when the owners of the system understand explicitly why their target customers aren’t adopting their product or service, but are unable to make the changes necessary to reach those customers. In this case, the schools are morally (and legally, perhaps) obliged to provide this service in an accessible fashion, but politics and bureaucracy get in the way. It’s not as if the schools are noting “hmm, no one seems to be eating our free lunches. We have no idea why that is. And even if we knew, we’d have no idea how to fix it!”

I first learned about wicked problems from Adam Richardson who described simple problems as those where both the problem and the solution are known, and complex problems as those where the problem is known but the solution is not. In wicked problems, neither the problem nor solution is known. Looking at the school cafeteria itself, we see a simple problem. Looking at the educational institution, there’s a likely wicked problem lurking just out of sight…why haven’t they solved the simple problem?

I’ve seen so many design student projects that solve simple problems without acknowledging the wicked problem that has prevented the adoption of similar solutions for so long. Naive designers so often believe that their solutions for simple problems are so fantastic that they will automatically be adopted but the sad truth is that the real problem isn’t about the lack of solutions.


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