15 Minutes for School Lunch?

With dwindling meal times, children are scarfing or tossing their food and forced to choose between eating lunch and having recess

It takes my bright-eyed, busy-bodied, day-dreaming, social and completely normal 8-year-old daughter an average of 15 minutes to eat a bowl of cereal in the morning, this including the occasional plea on my behalf to "hurry up and eat.” I hate sometimes having to rush her because I know I am mostly to blame for the fact that we are at yet another breakfast time face-off. We shouldn’t have eaten dinner so late. She should have gotten to bed sooner. I should have woken her up earlier. Mostly, she should have more time just to "be" before her school day begins. School. Where "hurrying up" is unfortunately becoming the leitmotif.

My daughter attends a public Seattle school, Whittier Elementary in Ballard, where lunch time was reduced this year from a 40-minute period to 30 minutes of combined lunch and recess. This shift to a 30-minute lunch period was due to the Washington State Legislature's modification of instructional hour requirements, according to a message sent to Whittier parents this fall. "School start and end times are determined by the bus schedule and we have contract requirements that do not allow us to alter the student day to add more lunchtime minutes," the message explained.

The district’s lunch program policy clearly states that students must receive 20 minutes to eat, with additional time provided for them to stand in line for lunch. At Whittier, a bell rings in the cafeteria after 15 minutes in order to signal the start of the next lunch wave (cafeteria space is shared, in shifts, to fit all students in) and the beginning of recess for the kids who are currently sitting in the cafeteria. Kids are allowed to stay and finish lunch, but then they sacrifice recess.

Only 15 minutes to eat lunch! Fifteen minutes, which also include the few brief moments these kids get to socialize with their friends outside of the classroom. These 15 minutes in reality often dwindle to 7 or 8 minutes depending on how quickly their teachers get the kids to the classroom or how long it takes for some students to wait in line for lunch. These are blatant violations to the district’s lunch policy, and it is becoming painfully clear that my daughter's school is not the only school in this situation.

Our school's extremely collaborative lunchroom staff and volunteers are encouraging the slower eaters to stay and finish their meal after the 15-minute bell has rung. As a result, many of them are not benefitting from as much recess as they could. For the students who are still eating, the 15-minute bell signals the time to quickly make one of three choices: 1) Eat your lunch quickly to go to recess; 2) Don't finish your lunch and go to recess, or 3) Finish your lunch and get less recess.

None of these three choices are healthy

As for the students who eat their meal in the allotted time frame, the fact of the matter is that 15 minutes is not enough. How do we educate our kids about health, nutrition and the importance of social interaction if they are required to scarf down their lunches rather than savor the meal and the moment?

There is no immediate or easy solution to this dilemma, but there does exist a group of extremely concerned and active parents who have decided to tackle the issue head on and to mobilize before the Seattle School Board. This group, called Lunch and Recess Matter (LRM), has its own Facebook page and was formed by some of my very good friends. One of them, Deb Escher, has a first grader and a third grader at Seattle's Whittier and took time off her busy work schedule to observe the lunch period. When she witnessed children having to choose between lunch and recess it was clear to her that something had to be done. She held a meeting with other concerned parents at her home two weeks ago and the LRM group was created. Since its inception, it has gained almost 800 members from schools all over the city and some in Washington state. 

Playing and eating should be a human right. This is a civil rights issue for our youth.

— Jesse Hagopian, Seattle history teacher, activist and parent

It has quickly become apparent that this matter is not just centered in one school or even Seattle-based, but that it is a statewide concern. I believe, as do many LRM parents I have spoken to at Whittier, that the school administration is stuck between a rock and a hard place, having to comply with restrictive bus schedules, short school days and increased instructional hour requirements, in addition to budgetary cuts.

Concerned parents in LRM have been actively collecting data and observing lunch periods in schools across the city and hope to present a proposal at the upcoming Seattle School Board meeting on Nov. 5.

I sat through lunch at Whittier three days in a row this week and saw firsthand how little time the students actually have to eat from the moment they sit down to the moment the bell rings: It ranges from as low as 6 minutes for the children who buy their lunch and wait in line to 15 minutes for those who bring their lunch. I saw several barely eaten lunches thrown into the garbage and observed a large group of students arrive to the lunchroom more than 6 minutes late. On a personal note, I was pleased to note that my daughter’s class was the first to make it to the lunchroom during the second and third grade lunch. Her teacher is making a conscious effort to get her students in line for lunch as early as possible, and for this I am extremely thankful.

Extreme methods are being put into place in some Seattle Schools in order to palliate the reduced lunch periods. At John Hay and MacDonald Elementary Schools it is reported that the final 3 to 5 minutes of the lunch period are to be spent in total silence. I have been told that children who violate “quiet time” are sometimes required to stay behind and miss recess. Some of these “transgressors” are asked to leave their table and sit on the stage until they are dismissed.

In other words, let’s penalize and ostracize kids for socializing with their friends and make mealtime a burden rather than a social and positive experience! Perfect. 

I felt compelled to reach out to my friends and family with elementary school aged children in my hometown of Montreal, Quebec, and was floored by what I discovered. While my polling audience is small and my methods unscientific (Facebook status update) each and every person who messaged me or emailed me had the same answer: their school day is a bit longer than ours but their kid(s) get a minimum of 55 minutes combined lunch and recess in addition to morning and afternoon recess. This seems much more humane.  

This problem crosses geographic and economic boundaries, and low-income students are being impacted disproportionately. Take Bailey Gatzert Elementary in Seattle's Central District, where 83 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-cost meals, vs. 10 percent at my daughter's school. Gatzert students have a 30-minute-long lunch period and a 10-minute-long afternoon recess. Although the statistics I obtained do not differentiate between the percentage of free and reduced breakfasts vs. lunches, I’m willing to go out on a limb and guess that many Gatzert students are not given sufficient time to eat what might be the only full meal of their day.

I spoke to Jesse Hagopian, a history teacher at Garfield High School who led the school’s historic test boycott and who also co-advises the black student union. A dedicated activist, he has begun to advocate in favor of extending recess periods for children and recently expressed his concern that students of color and low-income students disproportionately miss out on the benefits of recess.

When reached by phone this week, Hagopian, who is also the father of a kindergartener, said he feels the current lunch and recess problem boils down to a lack of funding in Seattle schools, which is directly related to more frequent standardized testing.

“What we have seen and what studies have shown,” Hagopian says, “is that the increase in high-stakes testing has been one of the driving factors in the reduction of recess time. In Seattle, levy funds to schools are cut if you don’t reach a certain test score level, which leads to cuts in lunch and recess time.” For Hagopian, this is more than just a lunch and recess issue: “Playing and eating should be a human right. This is a civil rights issue for our youth.”  

As word of mouth has begun to spread regarding the LRM group, another grassroots effort, the Save Recess petition, has emerged out of South Seattle, where it appears that some elementary students are getting only 15 minutes of total recess each day. The group is pushing for the implementation of a district-wide recess policy, and the petition had amassed over 1,200 signatures by Friday afternoon.

Both these strong and motivated groups have joined forces and will be mobilizing before the Seattle School Board at the Nov. 5 meeting. All concerned parents and community activists are encouraged to attend.

Although it is impossible at this early stage to identify a “cause” or to instill blame on a single governing body, we must, as advocates for our children, express our opposition to these insufficient lunch and recess periods and make ourselves heard. By quietly complying, we are telling our kids that proper nutrition, social interaction and positive play are not important. Think back to your elementary school days. Surely you had more than 15 minutes for lunch or recess?

How long does your child get for lunch and recess? Join our conversation.

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