Healthy school lunches are useless if there's no time to eat

school cafeteria
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Oregon Department of Agriculture – School cafeteria

With limited hours in the day, many U.S. schools are prioritizing lesson time over lunch time, leaving kids hungry and miserable.

There has been a good deal of focus in recent years on the quality of food that children are fed in schools. Former First Lady Michelle Obama worked hard to make school lunches healthier, resulting in revised menus that featured less fat and salt, more fruits, vegetables, and leaner proteins. (Much of this progress has been undermined by the Trump administration's loosening of nutritional guidelines.)

But high-quality nutrients count for little when there is no time to eat them – and lack of lunch time, according to the Washington Post, is a serious problem in schools across the United States. Amy Ettinger reports, "There is no national standard on how much time kids get to eat that meal. Instead, it is left to the discretion of local districts." And with schools being as preoccupied as they are with maximizing standardized test scores, teachers are using every available minute for lesson time, which often leaves kids without adequate recess and eating time.

This is a problem because, as Harvard nutrition professor Juliana Cohen explains, "the length of the school lunch period is a key factor in how much nutrition children actually get." Cohen's own research has found that having less than 20 minutes for lunch results in children consuming considerably less of their lunches than those with more than 20 minutes. Ettinger references a Berkeley, California, public school where kids wait so long to get served in the cafeteria line that they end up dumping it in the trash immediately without eating, before racing back to class.

This is an abysmal state of affairs. A hungry child cannot absorb information. For many low-income kids, that cafeteria lunch can represent half their daily energy intake; and with the current administration's proposal to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Cohen says it would "probably make it even more difficult for poor children to get enough food."

Then there's the terrible message that a rushed lunch hour sends to kids, that it's acceptable to wolf down food as fast as possible before rushing off to your next class. Cafeteria time should be a chance to interact with friends, to navigate important social interactions, to observe and share different kinds of food. It should be a respite in the day, a chance to recharge mentally and physically before heading into the afternoon.

As Ettinger explains, some parents are hoping the National Parent Teacher Association will address this issue at its next convention and take an official stance. This, in turn, would help parents push their kids' schools for better lunch time standards.

In the meantime, if you have a kid in a situation like this, you can help by packing a healthy lunch to spare them the cafeteria lineup. Make the foods easy to unwrap and eat, provide non-messy snacks that can be eaten in class (if teacher allows), put significant effort into serving a hearty breakfast, and sit down as a family for dinner whenever possible.

Healthy school lunches are useless if there's no time to eat
With limited hours in the day, many U.S. schools are prioritizing lesson time over lunch time, leaving kids hungry and miserable.

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