School nutrition is an ongoing issue in the United States, where growing numbers of students every year are relying on free and reduced lunch programs for nutrition at school. More than 20% of children in the United States live in a food insecure household, making such programs crucial for kids who are not getting enough to eat at home.
Children are also struggling with a variety of health problems which some research connects to diet, making it critical for food at school to not just be available, but also healthy.
Programs in recent years have focused on adding more fresh fruits and vegetables, reducing fats and starches, and presenting more balanced meals to children in school. Schools are interacting with community gardens and urban farms to not only present locally harvested produce at lunch, but sometimes to get students into the farm so they can participate in the harvest of their own food. The USDA is changing its standards for schools, upping the stakes to ensure that children get what they need to eat and be healthy.
But there’s a problem: as the quality of food improves, the amount of time children are being given to eat their lunches is shrinking. The Journal of Child Nutrition & Management noted in 2002 that students need at least 20 minutes after they’re served to eat lunch, which means that schools calculating lunch periods need to think about the number of students being served, how long it’s going to take them to get through the line and how long it will take to sit down.
That 20 minutes is just an average, too. Some students eat slower, spend more time chatting with friends and have to dodge perils of the cafeteria like bullying. The average lunch period is only 31 minutes long, leaving students with just 10 minutes to get out of class, stow suppliers in their lockers if necessary, get to the cafeteria, stand in line to get served and eat.
Some students don’t even have time to pick up their lunch at all, thanks to huge crowds, byzantine service systems and other obstacles. Others get cold food that they don’t want to eat, or don’t have any time to finish their lunch, leaving them with a few bites of food and nothing else. All that uneaten food, of course, goes straight into the garbage (or the compost, if the school is cooperating with a composting program), despite the fact that it’s perfectly edible and nutritious.
Meanwhile, students are going back to class hungry, with low blood sugar levels. They’re cranky, they have trouble focusing and they’re not performing as well in school. With a longer lunch period to actually eat and take a break from the demands of academics, students would have a chance to recharge in the middle of the day, and many advocates are pushing for that, even as school districts promote quick, portable, on-the-go meals to process students more quickly without extending the lunch break and eating into class periods.
The debate over the best lunch period length and the best way to serve students is a complicated one, touching on a number of issues for students and teachers. One thing is clear: the current system isn’t working, and children deserve better than a long wait in line with the possibility of maybe having enough time to wolf down their food before the bell rings.
Photo credit: US Department of Agriculture.