Student Well-Being What the Research Says

Teachers Say Students Don’t Have Enough Time to Eat Lunch. Here’s How to Change That

By Sarah D. Sparks & Arianna Prothero — September 20, 2023 | Corrected: October 05, 2023 7 min read
Students wrap up their lunch break at Lowell Elementary School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Aug. 22, 2023. Several states are making school breakfasts and lunches permanently free to all students starting this academic year, regardless of family income, and congressional supporters of universal school meals have launched a fresh attempt to extend free meals for all kids nationwide.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this article cited some incorrect survey numbers. It should have said: 60 percent of educators said their students need at least 30 minutes to eat; more than a third said they themselves needed 41-60 minutes to eat, and more than a quarter said their students needed as much time.

As more schools aim to give students access to free breakfast and lunch, the vast majority of teachers warn their students don’t have enough time to actually eat their food.

In a nationally representative survey this summer, more than 6 in 10 educators told the EdWeek Research Center that their students need at least a half-hour to eat. But more than three-quarters of teachers said their students get less time; 21 percent of teachers said their students had less than 20 minutes for meals.

“Especially now that so many more school districts are able to provide free school meals to all students, we’re seeing increases in participation—which is wonderful, but that also can mean for many school districts, longer lunch lines and less time for students to actually eat their healthy school meal,” said Juliana Cohen, a professor of nutrition at Merrimack College and the Harvard School of Public Health, who studies school lunch programs.

Greenville County, S.C., public schools have seen a 5.6 percent increase in students eating school food—which can translate to hundreds of additional students—according to Joe Urban, Greenville’s director of nutrition services and a former Education Week Leader to Learn From. While the district has not had to change lunch schedules, the district has had to hire more cafeteria workers at several schools to cope with busier cafeterias.

“There’s a very finite number of minutes in each school to allocate towards lunches,” Urban said. “At the end of the day, [students] still have to have all their core classes and electives, people worry if they’re getting enough P.E. time, and starting and end times don’t really change. So principals can’t dip into educational time to include more lunchtime.”

However, studies suggest squeezing out meal time for academics can backfire.

“So often we’re cutting lunch period time for the academics, but in fact, ... when students don’t have a sufficient amount of food, we often see an increase in disruptive behaviors in the classroom and poorer focus,” Cohen said. “We need to provide sufficient nutrition for them to come back to the classroom able to focus and to learn.”

Policy changes bring rapid meal expansion

School meal participation expanded significantly during the pandemic, thanks to federal eligibility waivers and aid that allows schools to feed all students for free.

While federal aid expired last summer, eight states (California, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, Colorado, Vermont, Michigan, and Massachusetts) have passed laws to continue universal free meals to all students, regardless of income, in perpetuity. Other states have moved to follow their lead.

This fall, the U.S. Agriculture Department is expected to finalize a rule to make it easier for schools and districts to offer free school meals to all students. While the current rule requires at least 40 percent of students be identified as low-income to offer free meals schoolwide, the proposal would require only 25 percent of students be eligible for free and reduced-price meals.

While it’s unclear if lowering that threshold will entice districts to opt in, experts say that the rule change will benefit those states that are offering universal free meals and may even incentivize other states to adopt the policy.

In addition to making school meals universally free, there’s also been a state-level push—albeit a much more modest one—to give students more time to eat.

New Mexico passed a law requiring 20 minutes of seat time for students in March. It joins at least a handful of other states that require a minimum of 20 minutes for students to eat lunch after sitting down.

Maine passed a proposal this summer to study the issue, while bills in Rhode Island and South Carolina aiming to extend the minimum lunch period or establish a floor were proposed this spring but didn’t pass.

Why longer lunch periods are important

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that students have at least 20 minutes of sitting and eating—or “seat time” in school nutrition parlance.

However, Cohen and other lunch researchers have found that, for students to actually have 20 minutes to eat, they need more than a half-hour in their lunch periods. Students have only a fraction of their lunch period to actually eat because they also use that time to go to the restroom, walk to the cafeteria, and wait in line for food.

“We’ve stood at the lunch line with stopwatches,” Cohen said.” For students who are at the end of the lunch line, we’ve measured kids with as few as five minutes to actually eat their meals.”

Lunch periods that are too short also disproportionately hurt low-income students for whom school meals may be their most reliable meal of the day.

When lunch periods are too short, more food also goes uneaten, contributing to the massive amount of food waste that schools produce. Schools waste upwards of 530,000 tons of food a year, according to a 2019 analysis by the World Wildlife Fund in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Longer lunch periods also promote better nutrition.

“Students receive significantly larger portions of fruits and vegetables with each meal and more of these produce choices are fresh, which take longer for students to consume,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association. “We want students to eat these healthy choices, but too often they eat the entrée first and don’t have time to finish the fiber-rich produce sides.”

With rates of youth obesity rising during the pandemic, health experts say healthy school meals—and the time to eat them—are particularly critical now.

Short lunch periods affect teachers, too

Teachers want longer lunch periods for themselves, too.

In the EdWeek Research Center’s survey, a little more than half of teachers said they get 21 to 30 minutes for lunch, the most common break length among teachers polled. But the most coveted break length was 31 to 40 minutes, with more than a third of teachers saying that’s how much time they think they should get. Fifteen percent of teachers indicated they get that, while 14 percent said they get only 11 to 20 minutes for lunch.

It’s not surprising these numbers mirror what teachers say their students receive.

Teachers are also more likely to call for longer lunches for themselves and their students: More than a third of teachers said they needed 41-60 minutes to eat, and more than a quarter called for that much time for their students, too.

The length of lunch periods for teachers is determined by a mix of policies from school districts, union contracts, and states.

With staffing shortages, teachers have more demands on their schedules, making the idea of codifying lunch breaks in their contracts more appealing, according to an American Federation of Teachers spokesperson.

In the past few years, Cohen said more schools have moved to have teachers eat lunch with their students, often with meals delivered to the classroom. She’s found the model cuts out travel time to and from the cafeteria, adding more time to eat, and allows teachers to model better meal etiquette for students.

“We’re finding a number of teachers reporting how beneficial [classroom meal time] is both for them as an opportunity to have these more casual interactions with their students,” Cohen said.

Building better meal times

Sal Valenza, the food service director for West New York public schools in New Jersey, said his schools haven’t changed their lunch periods, but about 80 percent of foods for his middle and high schools are now self-serve, delivered via multiple food stations.

“So they’re not waiting on a line for somebody to hand them a meal; they’re coming in, they’re grabbing what they want and they’re going,” Valenza said.

Both Valenza and Cohen said younger students can get more out of their lunch periods just by front-loading physical activity.

“When you let the kids play first and then eat, they optimize that 22 minutes” of eating time, Valenza said. “When they are eating first and then going to play afterward, they want nothing to do with that 22 minutes; they wanna get outside.”

Cohen agreed. In separate research, she found scheduling recess or physical education before meal periods can both increase students’ appetites and reduce lunchroom misbehavior.

To optimize lunch periods, the School Nutrition Association has these tips:

  • Minimize the amount of time spent in lunch lines by streamlining service.
  • Offer more grab-and-go options, such as pre-packaged salads, fruit, and cartons of milk.
  • Establish multiple points of sale, including hallway kiosks or healthy vending machines.
  • Allow students to eat in their classrooms to cut down on transition time.
  • Avoid schedules with a single lunch period for all students.

A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2023 edition of Education Week as Teachers Say Students Don’t Have Enough Time To Eat Lunch. Here’s How to Change That

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