European schools treat it as a time for learning. Why don't we?
Educational reformers are focused today on maximizing learning in the classroom, and rightly so. We have to be accountable for formal student learning.
But what about “informal,” noninstructional time? Who is thinking about learning outside the classroom? More to the point, who is thinking about the school lunch period?
Based on my experiences in European schools, I am convinced that by ignoring lunch, we are wasting a potentially powerful learning opportunity.
What little research there is about school lunches in U.S. schools suggests that getting students fed and keeping them under control are the two most important outcomes of the experience.
But the goal should go beyond that. We should use this time to instill in schoolchildren some of our most cherished values. Sharing a meal has the potential to help students learn how to be more responsible for themselves and to care for and relate to others. The lunch period can be used as a community experience, one in which students learn from the positive interaction with their peers.
American schools traditionally have left the personal and social needs of students to the family and community. That used to work, but as we all know, for many students today school provides the one stable and consistent environment in their lives. It is where many children learn how to belong.
This is something recognized by educators outside the United States. I’ve studied the way lunch is handled in schools in Austria and Switzerland, as well as in this country. In addition to observing lunch periods, I have interviewed key personnel and read relevant documents, where available.
The differences are striking.
In European schools, lunchtime is an experience valued by students and educators alike. Teachers eat with students and loosely manage their behavior. As one Swiss teacher remarked, “We live together, we work together, and if we have something to do, we do it together.” By contrast, American schoolteachers bring their students to the lunchroom and then leave to have their “duty free” lunch. Often, it’s the assistant principal who supervises the lunch period.
Sharing a meal has the potential to help students learn how to be more responsible for themselves and to care for and relate to others.
Another key difference between European and American schools is the way lunch money is collected. In both Austria and Switzerland, the central office bills the parents for lunch. Nobody knows who has received a subsidized lunch. Students do not worry about having a ticket or not. And there is no handling of tickets or money—nor is there a computerized payment system in the lunchroom.
This not only allows for family-style service, but also fosters a community atmosphere at the tables. Time is spent eating and socializing—not standing in line to pay for lunch. And there is no social stigma attached to students who receive a free or reduced-price lunch. From my interviews with American educators, tensions stemming from the use of a lunch ticket are evident.
Because the federal government sponsors many of the lunch programs in schools that serve students from low-income families, it has dictated how the money is collected and spent—something that has not served the needs of children and schooling.
In the Chicago public schools, for example, food cannot be served outside of the lunchroom. This means students may not carry lunches and snacks to the classroom—something that, if allowed, would instantly transform the experience into a community activity (the practice is common in Japan).
Many of our nation’s schools were not designed to serve lunch on site. Often, gymnasiums and auditoriums have been adapted as lunchrooms. We’ve taken the school day and tried to fit the serving of lunch to 700 schoolchildren into it. Often, children are given as little as 15 minutes to eat so that everyone can be served a meal.
Contrasting the American and European examples raises questions about the experiences of our students. At the heart of these questions is how unexamined routines of schooling can affect the experiences of our children and young people—and how changing those routines might better address their developmental needs.
Karen E. Stout is an associate professor in the department of education and human services at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.
A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2001 edition of Education Week as Upgrading the Lunch Period