There has been a wave of legislation filed in statehouses this spring to make school meals free to all students. But there is a smaller effort afoot in a handful of states to also expand how much time kids get to eat lunch—and the two policies are closely tied to one another.
While many schools carve out 25- and 30-minute lunch periods, according to a survey by the School Nutrition Association, students also must use that time to use the restroom, walk to the cafeteria, and stand in line, which can leave precious little time for students to sit and eat their meals.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that students get at least 20 minutes of seat time to eat lunch, and some experts recommend more. The reason: When students don’t have enough time to eat, not only are they missing out on important nutrition that affects their ability to learn—which is especially harmful for students from families struggling with food insecurity—they also waste more food. A 2019 study by the World Wildlife Fund in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that U.S. schools waste 530,000 tons of food a year.
Having adequate time to sit and eat has become more important as federal nutrition requirements have tightened and as more states pass laws making school meals free to all students regardless of income.
Healthier foods generally take more time to consume—consider the extra effort that goes into peeling and eating an orange versus consuming more processed foods such as canned fruit. And the more kids that participate in school meals programs—the likely outcome from offering them for free—the longer it will take to cycle all those students through the lunch lines, cutting into seat time. That’s a concern for district nutrition directors because many schools are struggling to fully staff their kitchens, said SNA spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner.
The lunch period is also an important time for students to put into practice the social-emotional skills they’re learning in the classroom, said Jonathan Saiz, the principal at Eisenhower Middle School in Albuquerque, N.M.
“It’s an opportunity to interact and work through norms and how to work through conflict and friendship in a very unstructured setting but in a very safe area being monitored by staff,” he said.
Saiz said that his students seem to crave the social time much more now than before the pandemic, making lunch time even more valuable.
States where students might get more time to eat
Lawmakers in Maine, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Vermont are all considering legislation this spring that would establish a minimum duration for lunch periods. New Mexico will start requiring at least 20 minutes of lunch seat time for elementary students as part of the universal free school meal bill signed into law by the governor in March. The state already required lunch periods to be at least 30 minutes.
While the details vary, at least seven states already require that schools provide students with at least 20 minutes for lunch, if not 20 minutes of dedicated seat time, according to an analysis by the School Nutrition Association, which represents school food service directors from across the country.
Even so, research suggests that still may not be an adequate amount of time for students to eat, especially the healthier parts of their meals.
A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that students who had less than 20 minutes to eat were significantly less likely to select a fruit as they loaded up their lunch trays and ate less of their entrees and vegetables and drank less of their milk, compared with students who had at least 25 minutes to eat. More recent research has backed those findings.
But allocating more time for lunch may be a non-starter for many schools facing increased pressure to catch students up on lost learning time during the pandemic. They simply do not see any wiggle room in their schedules to accommodate longer lunch periods.
To make the most of a lunch period, the School Nutrition Association recommends:
- Minimizing the amount of time spent in lunch lines by streamlining service.
- Offering more grab-and-go options, such as pre-packaged salads, fruit, and cartons of milk.
- Establishing multiple points of sale, including hallway kiosks or healthy vending machines.
- Allowing students to eat in their classrooms to cut down on transition time.
- Avoiding schedules with a single lunch period for all students.
Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.