University of Washington School of Public Health

UW SPH News: Are Seattle Schoolchildren Getting Enough Time for Lunch?

Are Seattle Schoolchildren Getting Enough Time for Lunch?

10/22/2015
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Many a parent knows this routine: Child comes home from school hungry and tired. Parent opens lunch box. Parent finds half-eaten or hardly touched meal.

“I ask him why?” Seattle parent Jana Robbins says of her second-grade son, a Leschi Elementary School student. “He says, ‘We don’t have enough time.’”

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Photo: USDA

A recent report by graduate students in the Nutritional Sciences Program at the University of Washington School of Public Health confirmed what many Seattle parents know anecdotally: Their children on average sat down for fewer than 13 minutes to eat lunch – far fewer than the 20 minutes called for in local and federal guidelines.

The UW graduate students found that travel time from the classroom to the cafeteria as well as time standing in line for a hot lunch cut into actual “seated time.”

The research was part of a class project led by Donna Johnson, professor of Health Services, and Clinical Instructor Mary Podrabsky. The resulting report – “Lunch Time at School: How Much is Enough?” – cited previous research linking proper nutrition and healthy eating with academic achievement, conduct, and overall school performance.

“They can’t learn when they’re hungry,” said Robbins, a Seattle parent who has been lobbying for more recess and lunch time. She and other parents started a popular Facebook page last year called Lunch and Recess Matter.

Earlier this month, the parents scored a victory of sorts when the Seattle School Board unanimously adopted a Student Wellness Policy stating, among other things, that:

  • Students are given adequate time to obtain and consume meals in an environment that encourages healthy eating.
  • Students have adequate opportunities to be physically active before, during, and after school, including adequate recess and regular physical activity breaks.

School districts such as Seattle that receive federal support for breakfast and lunch programs are required to update their local policies to promote student wellness and reduce childhood obesity. As part of that process, the Seattle School District created a School Wellness Task Force in early 2014.

One task force subcommittee partnered with the UW Nutritional Sciences Program to produce the assessment of seated lunch times.

“The UW report was so great at pointing out that if they have 20 minutes to eat, they’ll eat more nutritious food,” Robbins said. “They eat the less nutritious food first.”

The graduate students surveyed nine school principals and 63 kitchen managers. They also made observations at seven elementary schools and researched previously published scientific literature.

At four of the elementary schools, UW students observed plate waste from about 500 elementary students. On average, they noted 70 percent of vegetables and half of fruit went uneaten.

“Longer lunch periods allow students to consume more nutrients, food, and calories while shorter lunch periods produce more waste than longer lunch periods,” the report states.

It’s not an issue just for Seattle schools. A report last month by Harvard’s School of Public Health found that students in a Massachusetts school district who had fewer than 20 minutes to eat consumed much less of their entrees, milk and vegetables than students who were not so rushed.

Seattle school principals who were surveyed told the Nutritional Sciences students they couldn’t extend the lunch period because it would cut into state-mandated instructional time.

The Seattle School Board adopted a 20-minute policy for lunch in 2004, “but it’s not clear it means seated time,” said Podrabsky. “Some schools can figure it out,” she said, by using lunchroom monitors to help nudge children to finish their meals. Other schools feel they have greater priorities, she added.

Podrabsky was encouraged by a recent newsletter from BF Day Elementary School in Fremont that said teachers will escort students to “maximize students’ seat time to eat their lunch. We encourage students to make good use of their lunch time, and we make sure they finish their lunch – even if they return to recess or class a few minutes late. When slow eaters show a pattern of not finishing their lunch, we will certainly reach out to parents to work out a plan.”

But it’s not clear if other schools can increase sit-down lunch time for kids. “The big question for me is: Will this actually be implemented?” said Carolyn Kramer, an MPH graduate of the UW School of Public Health and a consultant who served on the school district’s task force. “It’s really a serious challenge.”

Other key findings from the UW report:

  • Schools with higher numbers of students in free and reduced lunch programs had less time to eat lunch.
  • Recess before lunch has been associated with increased food consumption.

The Seattle School Board mandated a minimum 30-minute recess for children this year as part of a negotiated contract with Seattle schoolteachers. Many parents had been lobbying for more recess, because they say it keeps kids healthier and improves their focus inside the classroom. But parents also pointed out the half-hour recess is guaranteed only for three years, the length of the contract, and is not a long-term policy.

Read the UW policy brief