The Salt
12:24 pm
Wed December 4, 2013

These Days, School Lunch Hours Are More Like 15 Minutes

Originally published on Sat December 7, 2013 4:09 am

It's lunchtime at Oakland High School in Oakland, Calif., and that means fence hoppers. Several kids wear mischievous grins as they speedily scale a 12-foot-high metal perimeter.

In theory, anyway, Oakland High is a "closed campus." That's done in the interest of safety and security and to cut down on school-skipping. It means kids can't leave during school hours without parental consent, especially at lunchtime. But it doesn't stop several students from breaking out.

Inside the cafeteria the lines are long, and complaints about the food are as plentiful as the fence jumpers.

Today's lunch is "popcorn chicken," potatoes and tamales. A plastic bowl with little packets of carrot sticks looks lonely.

The food is dry and burned, says freshman Mary Thomas. "It's just nasty."

And junior Olivia Moore says the lines leave little time to actually eat and socialize.

"I need more time because I eat slow and then, there's not enough free time," Moore says.

The school lunch hour in America is a long-gone relic. At many public schools today, kids are lucky to get more than 15 minutes to eat. Some get even less time.

And parents and administrators are concerned that a lack of time to eat is unhealthful, especially given that about one-third of American kids are overweight or obese.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that students get at least 20 minutes for lunch. But that means 20 minutes to actually sit down and eat — excluding time waiting in line or walking from class to cafeteria.

At Oakland High, over 80 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. And officially, students get about 40 minutes for the meal. But Jennifer LeBarre, Oakland Unified School District's nutrition services director, admits that the actual table time is far shorter. At times it's just 10 minutes.

"I think it's a legitimate complaint that there's not enough time to eat," LeBarre says. "If we are being asked to eat our lunch in 10 minutes, that's not enough for us. So I really think we need to really work more for the 20-minute table time."

Oakland High is hardly alone. In a wide-ranging new poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, 20 percent of parents of students from kindergarten through fifth grade surveyed said their child only gets 15 minutes or less to eat.

Ironically, relatively new federal school-nutrition guideline changes may be making the situation worse. Under federal rules, schools have to increase the availability and consumption of fruits and vegetables — among other changes. It's part of an effort to improve nutrition and combat childhood obesity.

But eating more healthful foods can take more time, LeBarre says. "It's going to take longer to eat a salad than it will to eat french fries."

At many schools, lunch schedules aren't changing. Julia Bauscher, who is president of a national advocacy group called the School Nutrition Association, says administrators are under intense pressure to increase instruction time and boost standardized test scores. The lunch period is often the first place they look to steal time.

"[They've] got to get in this many instructional minutes, and this is our expected annual yearly progress on the test," she says. "You've got two important and competing priorities there."

Exacerbating the time crunch, nationally, is the reality that more students are taking part in the free or reduced-cost school lunch programs. Many schools are now adding free dinners as well under a new USDA dinner program launched this year. Bauscher is also the nutrition services director for Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky. She says in her area, 70 percent of the students are participating in meals programs — including free dinners for some.

"We've got a higher number of students eligible for free and reduced meals than ever. So as more of them take advantage of those programs, you get longer food lines," she says.

Some possible solutions — such as adding lunch periods, more food stations or service workers or lengthening lunchtimes — can be costly. And many budget-strapped schools today simply don't want to risk the added price.

Nicola Edwards of California Food Policy Advocates says parents need to be central to any solution. Parents can't effectively preach to kids about healthful food and quality lunchtime, she says, and then model grabbing something unhealthful on the go.

"Parents need to be modeling good eating behaviors, and not shoving food through the window in the back of the car as they're on their way to work or to school," Edwards says. "Part of helping people is really making them understand the importance of eating and taking the time to eat. "

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The school lunch hour in America is a long-gone relic. At many public schools today, kids are lucky to get more than 15 minutes to eat. Some get even less time. And that's worrying parents and others who are concerned that a lack of time to eat is unhealthy. The lunchtime crunch is just one revelation from a new wide-ranging NPR poll on education and health in schools, the poll we're exploring all this week. NPR's Eric Westervelt has our story.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: It's lunchtime at Oakland High School and that means fence hoppers. Several kids wear mischievous grins as they speedily scale a 12-foot-high metal perimeter. In theory, anyway, Oakland High is a closed campus. That's done in the interest of safety, security and to cut down on school-skipping. That means kids can't leave during school hours without parental consent, especially at lunchtime. But several students are on what you might call a lunch break out.

Inside the cafeteria, the lines are long and complaints about the food are as plentiful as the fence jumpers. Today's lunch is popcorn chicken, potatoes and tamales. A plastic bowl with little packets of carrot sticks looks lonely. Freshman Mary Thomas.

MARY THOMAS: The potatoes be dry and the food just be dry and burned and stuff. It's just nasty.

WESTERVELT: Nearby, junior Olivia Moore eats her lunch standing up. She says the lines leave little time to actually eat and socialize.

OLIVIA MOORE: I need more time because I eat slow and then, like, there's not enough free time.

WESTERVELT: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that students get at least 20 minutes for lunch. But they mean 20 minutes to actually sit down and eat, excluding time waiting in line or walking from class. Officially anyway, students here get about 40 minutes for lunch. But Jennifer LeBarre, Oakland Unified's director for nutrition services, admits the actual table time is far shorter, at times just 10 minutes.

JENNIFER LEBARRE: I think it's a legitimate complaint that there's not enough time to eat, right? I think if we're being asked to eat our lunch in 10 minutes, that's not enough for us. So I really think we need to, you know, really work more towards the 20-minute table time.

WESTERVELT: This school is hardly alone. One result in a wide-ranging new poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health found that 20 percent of parents of students from kindergarten through fifth grade surveyed said their child only gets 15 minutes or fewer to eat.

Ironically, relatively new federal school nutrition guideline changes may be making the situation worse. Under federal rules, schools have to increase the availability and consumption of fruits and vegetables, among other changes. It's part of an effort to improve nutrition and combat the serious problem of childhood obesity. But eating healthier foods can take more time, notes Oakland Unified's Jennifer LeBarre.

LEBARRE: And it's going to take you longer to eat a salad than it will to eat French fries. I mean, that's just the way it is.

WESTERVELT: At many schools, the lunch period is getting smaller. Julia Bauscher is the incoming president of the School Nutrition Association, a national advocacy group. She says administrators are under intense pressure to increase instruction time and boost standardized test scores, so the lunch period is often the first place they look to steal time. Bauscher says when she brings the issue up with principals and administrators, she hears a common response.

JULIA BAUSCHER: But we've got to get in this many instructional minutes and this is our expected annual yearly progress on the test. And you've got two important, competing priorities there.

WESTERVELT: Experts point out the important link between good nutrition and academic performance. Nicola Edwards is with the California Food Policy Advocates. She says parents need to be central to any solution.

NICOLA EDWARDS: Parents need to be modeling good eating behaviors and not, you know, shoving food through the window in the back of the car as they're on their way to work or on their way to school. We have a huge epidemic of obesity and overweight in this country. And so, part of helping people is really making them understand the importance of eating and taking the time to eat.

WESTERVELT: Parents can't effectively preach to kids about healthy food and quality lunch time, she says, and then model grabbing something unhealthy on the go. Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

BLOCK: And you can see the full results of our poll in education and health at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.