Today’s New York Post has a story (in which I’m quoted) about eighth grade students in Queens who, due to school cafeteria overcrowding, will be required to eat their “lunch” this year at 9:45am. Not surprisingly, their parents are howling.
It’s easy to criticize ridiculously early lunch hours (who wants to eat roast chicken before 10am, a mere two hours after breakfast?), but growing student populations mean cafeterias that are too small to accommodate all students at a reasonable time. At the same time, though, a super-early lunch will likely result in kids skipping meals, as well as hunger pangs well before the closing bell rings.
Janet Poppendieck, my trusted school food guru, writes about this topic in Free For All: Fixing School Food in America. She mentions that she once encountered a lunch period at 8:59am (!) and also cites a study indicating that competitive food purchases go up when students are forced to eat morning lunches. She speculates that these snack purchases are either made for consumption later in the afternoon, or because snacks like cookies, chips and crackers are just more palatable in the morning than a hot entrée. Either way, early lunch can mean less nutritious food is consumed by students.
One solution to school cafeteria overcrowding, particularly in high schools, is to adopt an open campus policy and/or turn a blind eye to student fundraisers that bring junk food like pizza and fried chicken sandwiches onto campus for sale. Both of those options relieve pressure on the cafeteria, but they also have the perverse effect of forcing the cafeteria to then compete with junk food outlets to retain student participation in the lunch program. That’s precisely why my district sells a la carte items like “Frito Pie” and blue slushies, and why its regular menu includes pizza and burgers every day: to keep high schoolers from going elsewhere for a fast food lunch.
Do any of you have children who are required to eat lunch at an early hour? If so, how do you and they handle it?
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