Lunch at 9:45am? The Problem of “School Brunch”

by Bettina Elias Siegel on September 4, 2012

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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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Rebecca Brown September 4, 2012 at 10:50 am

My daughter’s PreK class last year had lunch at 10:15. All of the parents agree to rotate providing a big healthy afternoon snack for the class. It helped keep them full until after school snack.

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Bettina Elias Siegel September 4, 2012 at 11:04 am

Rebecca: Just curious- was your daughter even hungry for the lunch at 10:15? Did you have to cut back on breakfast?

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Paula September 4, 2012 at 11:19 am

Our 7th grader has lunch at 10:30am this year. She understands the importance of eating regularly but finds it difficult to force feed herself lunch so early. I pack her backpack with healthy snacks but it has been a less than perfect solution. She has a hard time finding a place to eat her afternoon snack because food is not allowed in the classrooms at her school. She is also very aware of her peers these days and has noticed that most 7th graders do not come to school with snacks. Most of them are forced to suffer through the afternoon hours with hunger pains. She feels guilty about having snacks for herself and has asked for enough to share. I do my best to pack snacks for the 7th graders, but there are days when she comes home with all of the snacks because they didn’t have the opportunity to eat them, or there just wasn’t enough for everyone.

I understand why the students are forced to eat lunch early. I understand that there isn’t enough room. I understand that lunch isn’t a priority for schools. I understand that it takes legislation to move schools to offer healthy lunches. What I do not understand is why they think that lunch time is negotiable. Why do they think that biology can be altered at will? Why do they fail to honor the health of our children?

I wonder if there is a creative solution in sight… Our struggle with an early lunch time continues. I look forward to hearing from others who have had to face this dilemma.

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Bettina Elias Siegel September 4, 2012 at 8:50 pm

Paula: I agree — and it’s the same issue when it comes to lunch period duration as well, a topic discussed quite a bit on TLT (including a great guest post by Chris, who appears in this comment thread.) It’s dehumanizing to give kids ten minutes to eat, or to provide “lunch” when no child is likely to be hungry. No matter how understandable the thinking that gets schools there, it’s still your kid coping with the sad result.

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L. September 4, 2012 at 11:41 am

Interesting. Perhaps their school start time is early, too? My daughter (1st grade) is leaving for the bus stop at 7:05. Her grade eats sometime between 10:30 and 11am, and they’re on the bus home at 2:30. Honestly, I was RELIEVED that lunch was so early. Kindergarten was half day last year, and at 10:30 pickup she was always in tears because she was so hungry. It sounds early, but realize that is 4 hours since she last ate. It’s just hard to get a little kid to eat enough of anything substantial before 7am…and she is always up early, so waking up earlier is not the problem. We worked hard though, and this year is going better so far.

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Bettina Elias Siegel September 4, 2012 at 8:45 pm

L – That’s true – the start time and age of kids is relevant to whether an early lunch is a problem or a blessing. But even with a somewhat later departure time than you have, I do have trouble getting my almost-teen to eat anything in the morning. I don’t want to force food, of course, but I also hate sending her off with an empty stomach.

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Kristina September 4, 2012 at 4:49 pm

My son’s kindergarten class eats at 11:30. We were sent home letters that we needed to send $35 for the year to provide snacks and milk break in the class plus we should offer to bring a snacks for the entire class. I’ve been bringing my son school lunches but sometimes they’ll need to be warmed up, who wants to eat a cold meal everyday? I was told by his teacher that he’s unable to have lunches that they need to warmed up and that he needs to eat faster because they only have 30 min which ends up being less time after getting in the cafeteria and finding a seat. I’m so fed up with school lunch prices, portion sizes that I started sending him healthy food to school and now I’m having to send him only foods that aren’t warm. What about the winter time when a nice bowl of soup sounds better than a cold sandwich?

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Bettina Elias Siegel September 4, 2012 at 8:54 pm

Kristina: All of this sounds so frustrating, and I just hate the image of a little kindergartener being told he needs to speed up his lunch! But on the issue of warm meals in winter: have you tried using a Thermos? I rely on mine several times a week for my own kids. If you fill it with boiling water for about ten minutes before you drain it and fill with hot food, it keeps pretty the food warm fairly well.

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Kristina September 5, 2012 at 9:41 am

Bettina Elias Siegel, It is very frustrating to hear you child say he doesn’t want to eat fast or he’ll choke. I’ll definately try the Thermos. We live in South Dakota so temps are getting cooler already. Thanks for that tip.

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Chris September 4, 2012 at 5:49 pm

One solution would be to fund the school systems adequately, through progressive taxation, and not have schools that are basically overcrowded warehouses of kids.

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mommm!!! September 5, 2012 at 5:31 pm

Overcrowding creates a lot of issues regarding timing and “lunches”. My child’s lunch time this year is actually much later in the day….too late I’m afraid. So if his classes start at 8am, he has to wait 5 hours for lunch….6 hours if you count from when he had breakfast. It’s hard to ask a 13 year old boy (who is a bottomless pit btw) to go that long without lunch. To make matters worse, by the time he actually gets to the cafeteria, finds a seat, unpacks his lunch…he’s left with 15 minutes to eat. If he was getting a hot lunch from the school, his actual meal time would be between 5 and 10 minutes.

What kind of hoops of fire do these people honestly expect from our kids? And the kids have no choice in the matter. And neither do the parents. I’ll be on the phone with his principal next week to discuss alternatives for my child because it’s just not acceptable. I’m sure he’ll just LOVE that. AND….if the principle is not responsive, then I’ll be organizing with other parents about it. Because I’ve just about had it with this nonsense.

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Maggie September 5, 2012 at 9:02 pm

I agree. The meal times need to be longer, and at logical times.

How to deal with the reality of it? A longer meal time could mean – take time from classroom/teaching or longer school day. A longer school day in turn impacts bus schedule (how early or late should a child leave or arrive home?) and teacher contracts, possible need for more supervision time if teachers have duty free time. Or, would it call for a building upgrade – bigger cafeteria, or different places for students to eat (likely to cause custodial concerns, if, for example students could leave the actual cafeteria for another room/area)? Is the kitchen large enough, staffed to serve at different locations?

All probably able to be addressed (some are much bigger issues than others), but…there is always a cost.

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mommm!!! September 5, 2012 at 10:47 pm

I agree that there seems to be a domino effect on other things. However, I have to take issue with all the school days my child misses for when the school needs its staff to have “meetings”. I’ve never actually counted them, but last year it seemed like the weeks he went to school for only four days seemed quite numerous. Also, we have the Boys And Girls Clubs here and it seems they have no issues providing healthy meals and snacks free of charge to its members and incidentally, the membership fee is so low its almost laughable. I realize that this is a heavily funded organization. However, why can’t our school systems follow the same model? I know that schools receive donations so where the hell is the money going? I don’t see it going to our children that’s for sure.

I pack my child’s lunch for a few reasons…one of them being the timing issue. It’s infuriating to me that my child HAS to bring a lunch just to have access to healthy food. It infuriates me that the system can’t seem to operate in a way that at least allows my child to eat something and therefore cutting me off at the knees by just trying to feed my kid because there is literally no time in the day to allow him to eat.

Surely, food can’t be so offensive that it is banished from classrooms. I’d be much happier if at the end of a class my child was allowed to sit at his desk and eat a lunch for half an hour than being shuffled through 2 or 3 destinations after waiting 5 or 6 hours for a lunch he has no time to eat. I mean, if it wasn’t so infuriating I’d be laughing from the absurdly absolute lack of common sense that seems to be so vacant in the hallways of our public schools. Of course, the idea of children just eating lunch in a classroom I’m sure is barred by probably a host of rules from several government agencies…..let’s see…maybe the board of education, the health department, maybe the (insert expletive of your choice here) FDA. Who knows! Who cares! I’m tired of it. And it’s just stupid.

Frankly, I wouldn’t lose sleep at night if cafeterias disappeared from our schools altogether. And I know what some of you are thinking….what about the children whose parents are on food stamps or are getting the free lunch….well my child eats a prepacked sandwich everyday and we’re not above it. And I see what people are buying on food stamps and I wouldn’t call what they buy actual food so I won’t shed a tear over that either. Do I sound bitter? Well I am. I scrimp and save and I make less than what some people make on welfare and I manage to feed my child organically and well. If I can do it then I know good and well other parents can, too. I’m so tired of hot dog and dorito eating parents whining about how much they need the free lunch for their cheeto and twinkie kids. Truly.

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