One of The Lunch Tray’s most popular guest posts ever, entitled “The Incredible Shrinking Lunch Period,” was written back in 2011 by Chris Liebig, a law professor who also blogs about Iowa City schools. In that post, Chris described the ridiculously short period of time allotted for lunch in his district and unfortunately he couldn’t end the piece on an optimistic note:
I wish there were a happy ending to this story. But after listening sympathetically to our concerns, the superintendent issued a new policy: henceforth, the kids would have “no less than fifteen minutes” to eat — which in practice has meant that kids still sometimes end up with only ten minutes. Oh, and kids would no longer be made to wear their winter clothes to lunch — the time for getting dressed would be taken out of their recess instead. Meanwhile, the superintendent argued that the best solution would be to lengthen the school day.
Many school districts, feeling the intense pressure created by standardized testing, continue to shortchange students when it comes to giving them adequate time to eat.
Recently I was contacted by Rainey Wikstrom, a school wellness consultant in Colorado, and when she and I got to talking via email about this same issue, I asked her if I could interview her for TLT. As you’ll read below, Rainey does believe that parents can make a difference, but it takes collective will and a lot of persistence. Here’s our Q&A:
TLT: Tell us your biggest concern(s) about the lack of sufficient time for kids to eat lunch each day.
RW: Kids who aren’t given adequate time to eat lunch, often go hungry. School lunchrooms can be among the most unpleasant places to spend one’s time for a variety of reasons. Kids are often herded into the cafeteria like cattle, refused water from the nearby fountain, told to not socialize, and subjected to whistles, flashing lights–in often congested and windowless environments. Sound like fun?
Adding insult to injury is that many kids will have seven minutes or less to consume their lunch, making for garbage bins filled with uneaten food and rumbling tummies headed back to their classrooms. I have a vision that all schools will provide adequate time for students to consume their meals while socializing in a pleasant environment that is conducive to a pleasant and satisfying eating experience. When students are nourished, they are better able to perform well in school–and in life.
TLT: What are some of the horror stories you’ve seen or heard about due to too-short lunch periods?
RW: One staff member in a school told me about a little second grade girl who had just sat down and was taking her first bite of food, when the lunchroom monitor called out, “Everyone take your last bite. It’s time to go!” This little girl put down her fork in defeat, stood up and dumped her entire tray in the trash. We need to send the message to kids that mealtime is an important time to refuel their bodies– and minds and that we value them enough to ensure they receive adequate time to do so.
TLT: Have you tried to change the system and, if so, what obstacles have you encountered?
RW: Yes, I talk to anyone who will listen. Food Services Directors would LOVE to see kids have more time, but they have no control over the school schedule. School districts would like to see kids have more time for lunch but are pressed to meet testing objectives, and therefore have weighted core subject areas with a higher time priority. Additionally, there may be costs associated with adding supervision time when lunches are lengthened. By expanding the school lunch period, schools would have to address these concerns. Additionally, some cafeterias are smaller than other, making congestion and scheduling more challenging. These are a few of the barriers– but all can be overcome.
TLT: What do you think it will take to get longer lunch times for students?
RW: Parents and students have the power to make a difference in this area. Parents and students are the customers of schools and therefore have the most powerful voices to influence changes. If parents really knew what is happening in their schools, many would be outraged and take action. It only takes a few parents to begin a movement.
TLT: So what should concerned parents do?
RW: Visit your child for lunch and find out what is happening in your school. Time the meal service and evaluate the situation. Invite other parents to join you. If the lunch period needs lengthening, begin by sharing your vision of a longer lunch period with the principal, school board, school food director and other parents. Share a vision of a positive meal experience with adequate time for socialization in a pleasant environment. Don’t take no for an answer and absolutely never give up. If your school is already doing well in this area, express your gratitude to the principal and school board for making mealtime a priority.
TLT: Is there anything else you’d like to share with Lunch Tray readers on this topic?
RW: Parents often underestimate their power to make a difference. Parents (and students) are customers of schools and hold tremendous power to influence school policies and practices. Begin by having conversations and discussing solutions. People will often run from a problem but get behind a vision. Create the vision of what it is you’d like to see and share that vision. Together, we can make a positive difference for kids everywhere.
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Thanks to Rainey for letting me share this interview. Do your own kids have adequate time to eat in their schools? Have you ever tried to tackle this issue in your school or district and, if so, what was the outcome? Let us know in a comment below.
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