Student Well-Being

Lunchtime Can Teach Appetizing Lessons, Scholar Says

By Nashiah Ahmad — January 15, 2003 6 min read

A McDonald’s fast-food operation—that’s the image some critics have of today’s public school lunch periods. Students file into the cafeteria, spend nearly half the time waiting in line, then rush to finish their lunches in a frenzy.

Research Page

Caught up with trying to preserve as much classroom time as possible, schools don’t realize that lunch is an opportune time to build a sense of community and foster social skills, says Karen Evans Stout. A professor of educational leadership at Lehigh University, in Bethlehem, Pa., Ms. Stout studied 2,000 lunch periods in the United States and abroad for a paper now in review.

“If all we’re going to do is line kids up and feed them as fast as possible, we’re wasting a valuable opportunity,” she said.

Ms. Stout, who visited Swiss, Austrian, and American schools for her study, found that cultural differences account for the way schools deal with mealtimes. But schools in this country, she said, can make modifications, ranging from the length of the lunch period to the environment in which students eat, to make the time more community-like and less like a factory.

“Why don’t we use out- of-class activities to teach other valued goals of schooling?” she said. For example, she said, schools foster responsibility by involving students more in serving and cleaning up meals.

Another problem Ms. Stout cites is the way many schools handle lunch lines. When students go through the serving line and have to fish bills and coins from their pockets to pay for lunch, it not only wastes time, but also sets students apart on the basis of what they pay, she notes.

“We make it so much like a restaurant—who can pay and who cannot—that we lose that sense of community,” she said. It is that feeling of ownership and belonging Ms. Stout advocates for the lunch period.

Simple Changes

But students can’t feel such positive emotions unless some simple changes are made, Ms. Stout advises, drawing on her research. Those include having a centralized way of handling money, so students don’t have to pay in cash while going through the line; seating students at round tables to foster discussion; and having teachers eat with students, especially at the elementary level, so students can learn simple etiquette.

Creative activities to build community, such as allowing students to go to the library to be read to while eating, or putting together a lunchtime talent show, can do wonders for building bonds.

“There is an opportunity during the lunch period to advance some instructional kinds of goals,” agreed Vincent L. Ferrandino, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, based in Alexandria, Va. But most schools don’t use it that way, he said.

One exception is Dorothy C. Goodwin Elementary School in Storrs, Conn., where last year the lunch and library staff of the 260-pupil, K- 4 school turned the cafeteria into a literary experience.

The school lunch manager decorated the kitchen with themes from library books, and cooked matching food. During the Chinese New Year, she designed a Chinese menu, and during library time, the librarian read students books about Chinese culture. Such changes might seem a bit ambitious for some schools, however, given the scant amount of time sometimes allotted for lunch.

At Lincoln Elementary School in St. Cloud, Minn., lunchtime is handled in three 40-minute shifts. A group of about 40 students eats lunch during the first half of the period, while another group has recess. Halfway into the shift, the groups change places. That leaves about 15 to 18 minutes of lunchtime—plenty of time for students to go through the line, eat, and socialize, said Principal Greg Johnson.

But research suggests otherwise. Based on her studies, Ms. Stout recommends that students have a minimum of 15 minutes and a maximum of 25 minutes of sit-down time after getting their food. After all, students don’t spend the time at the table only eating—they socialize, she notes.

In fact, the average student, regardless of age, spends only 10 minutes during the lunch period eating, according to various research studies. But that’s not to say that the lunch period shouldn’t allow for more time, said Martha Conklin, an associate professor of hotel, restaurant, and recreation management at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa.

Time to Socialize

Ms. Conklin was one of several researchers who looked at the data from studies completed in 1997 and 1999, sponsored by the National Food Service Management Institute, to see whether their conclusions on the amount of time students needed to eat lunch were consistent.

The studies looked at 18 public elementary, middle, and high schools, over a 12- to 18- week period, and measured the amount of time it took for students to stand in serving lines, walk to their tables, eat, and throw their trash away.

The length of the lunch periods studied ranged from 15 minutes at an elementary school in Texas to a 45-minute combined lunch and recess at a New York elementary school.

Ms. Conklin recommends that students have at least 20 minutes at the table, allowing 10 minutes for socializing. “Logic tells us that students certainly need this time to burn off energy, to relate to their friends,” she said.

Creating a more pleasant environment can also help improve lunchtime. Too often, students are forced to eat in a gymnasium-turned- cafeteria, with concrete-block walls, no windows, fold-out tables, hard floors, and one or two giant oil drums in the middle as trash cans, researchers note.

The noise in a multipurpose room ricochets off the walls and floor, and students and teachers cannot communicate, said Roger Hart, the director of the Children’s Environments Research Group at the graduate center of the City University of New York. “It’s without any attempt to use the opportunity for the children themselves to establish a civilized culture among themselves,” said Mr. Hart, who has observed dozens of elementary school lunchrooms.

Just switching to round tables with decorations, and even playing a little music, would make the lunch period more civilized, he believes. He also advocates some form of reflection on the part of students. “I don’t think it’s necessary to get into the spiritual-religious connection through food,” he said, “but I do think they should pause before they eat and somehow recognize that this is a different occasion and special, and not just pumping food into your body.”

Calm and Civility

At Dorothy C. Goodwin Elementary, younger pupils eat in a lunchroom, while older students eat in their classrooms with their teachers. It’s a low-stress environment and more relaxed for the older children, according to Principal Anne L. Rash. Students are also permitted to invite friends from other classes to eat with them.

“It’s a calmer way, more civil way of going about a meal,” Ms. Rash said.

In the lunchroom, after everyone is seated, students must have five minutes of “quiet time,” so they can at least get started on their meals without chatting. At the end, students are responsible for sorting their food waste and trash and putting them in recycling bins—which teaches responsibility and cuts down on the amount of wasted food, Ms. Rash said.

Some government agencies also are trying to change the way schools treat the lunch period.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, along with the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians, released “Prescription for Change: 10 Keys to Promote Healthy Eating in Schools” in June 2000. Among the recommendations were allowing students enough time to eat, providing a pleasant atmosphere, and having teachers and community volunteers serve as role models in the lunchroom.

The USDA’s “Changing the Scene” program provides schools with information on how they can improve meals and the dining experience, said spokeswoman Susan C. Acker. “We’re trying to improve not only the school meal,” she said, “but the whole environment.”

Such improvements would benefit not only students, Ms. Stout of Lehigh University believes, but also society as a whole. After all, she said, “the kids we are educating are going to be our next-door neighbors.”

Interesting Ideas? Send suggestions for possible Research section stories to Debra Viadero at dviadero@epe.org.

Coverage of research is underwritten in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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