Forget what Washington school children are eating for a minute; what about whether they have time to eat it at all?
That’s the question the Washington State Auditor’s Office set out to answer this past school year, and found, overwhelmingly, that the answer is no.
According to a performance audit of school lunch durations released last week, most elementary-age students have less than 20 minutes of seated time to eat. Education and nutrition experts recommend students have at least that much time to eat, saying students with less time are less likely to make healthy choices.
“Twenty minutes allows kids to eat a complete healthy meal, and one that’s going to sustain them until they get out of school until the end of the day,” said Wendy Barkley, assistant director of Child Nutrition Services with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The report also recommended that schools schedule recess before lunch rather than the other way around. Students with recess before they ate tended to make healthier choices, waste less food and be better behaved throughout the day. That’s because students are often too eager to rush out to the playground if recess comes after lunch and are more likely to have stomachaches if they’ve eaten before playing outside, according to the report.
Caressa Milgrove is a Vancouver mom who has championed the issue of longer lunch times locally and at the Legislature after seeing her son come home with most of the food in his lunch box uneaten. Milgrove ran for a seat on the Vancouver Public Schools board of directors this year on the issue.
“We know when kids are given more time, they eat more nutritious food and they’re more able to meet their educational goals,” Milgrove said.
The report looked at 31 elementary schools, most of which did not give their students the recommended 20 minutes to eat. Of those, 17 schools scheduled 20 minutes of seat time, but only one of those schools ensured students actually received it.
Three Clark County schools were included in the report: Maple Grove School in Battle Ground Public Schools, Eleanor Roosevelt Elementary School in Vancouver Public Schools and Hockinson Heights Elementary School in the Hockinson School District. Students had, on average, less than 15 minutes of seated lunch time at all three schools.
Principals interviewed for the auditor’s report cited various roadblocks to extending lunch periods, including having few adults in the room, struggles balancing academic schedules with sufficient lunch times and limited or nonexistent cafeteria space.
Take, for example, the Pleasant Valley campus in Battle Ground Public Schools, which doesn’t have a cafeteria. Students at that school walk to a lunch counter, then walk back to their classrooms to eat, taking time out of the 20-minute period scheduled for the meal. Students are allowed to hold back and finish their lunch if they want to, district spokeswoman Rita Sanders said.
This year, however, the district increased its local levy rate to generate new revenue, part of which will go toward adding a cafeteria at the school.
“We tried to put that on the bond, but the bond didn’t pass,” Sanders said, talking about Battle Ground’s recent failed attempts to run multimillion-dollar construction bonds for new and improved schools.
State’s potential fixes
Research shows that students who have more time to eat are more likely to eat healthy food and make healthier choices on the lunch line. A study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggested that students with less than 20 minutes to eat were significantly less likely to choose a fruit and tended to eat 12 percent less of their vegetables than their peers who had at least 25 minutes to eat.
“You want (students) to select a healthy meal and eat that healthy meal,” said Barkley with OSPI. “They need time to do that.”
The Legislature this year approved funding for a two-year pilot program that will allow six elementary schools to develop plans and policies for extending lunch periods. Chosen school districts will receive $10,000 over two years for “efficiency upgrades,” said Mikhail Cherniske, legislative bills program specialist for Child Nutrition Services. Schools that require students to punch in a lunch number could upgrade to a bar code scanner for student identification cards, for example, or lunch rooms could be rearranged to move students along faster.
OSPI will use the results of the pilot program to develop recommendations for other school districts.
“What’s really holding schools back is it takes a long time for students to go through the lunch line,” he said.
State Superintendent Chris Reykdal also announced last week that OSPI will start a rulemaking process requiring that schools provide at least 20 minutes of seated lunch time for students, as well as adding recess before lunch for elementary school students.
“We are not aiming to make sweeping changes overnight,” Reykdal wrote in a press release. “We expect it will take several years to implement these changes in some schools.”
Milgrove, who pushed for legislation and funding to launch the pilot program, is glad to see the issue getting the attention she believes it deserves.
“We’re talking about hungry kids,” she said. “It needs to be a priority. Nothing is going to work if our kids are hungry.”