Student Well-Being

Why 20-Minute Lunch Periods Aren’t Good for Students

By Arianna Prothero — October 14, 2019 5 min read
Conceptual school lunch on tray in blues and reds.
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The amount of time schools allocate for lunch can be just as important as the food they serve—and the 25 minutes to half hour the typical school sets aside is often too short, say the School Nutrition Association and an expert who has studied the issue.

By the time students walk to the cafeteria, maybe run to the bathroom, and wait in line for their food, they often don’t have enough time to eat all of their meal—especially the healthy, more fibrous parts—which can have long-lasting effects on their academic performance and behavior.

And low-income students who rely on school-provided meals can be especially affected by rushed lunch periods because of the time they spend in line waiting to be served.

But many principals find it hard to balance the time needed for instruction in the classroom with breaks like lunch and recess.

“Days are really tight anyway,” said Heather Jones, the principal of Trailside Elementary in Anchorage, Alaska. Her school started offering longer lunch periods this year as part of a district pilot program.

“Staff understand that the movement and break time is important,” Jones said. “But students also have to be taught what they need to move up to the next grade.”

The median length of school lunch periods has largely stayed the same over the past decade, according to the School Nutrition Association. But that obscures the problem: With growing student populations, many schools are cycling more students through the cafeteria which means less time for eating, said Gay Anderson, the president of the School Nutrition Association.

Pair that with the fact that federal standards for healthy school lunches have tightened up, and students simply aren’t left enough time to chew all those fibrous fruits and vegetables, said Anderson, who is also the director of nutrition at the Brandon Valley school district in South Dakota.

“Across the country we’re hearing, a lot of those fresh fruits and veggies, which are great to add to our program, need more time to consume,” said Anderson. “When you think about eating an apple versus a canned pear—those types of textures, those things make a difference.”

At minimum, students need 20 minutes to sit and eat, said Anderson, excluding time walking to the cafeteria and standing in line. The School Nutrition Association is lobbying the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to officially recommend just that, citing research on students’ eating patterns and nutritional needs.

15 Minutes to Eat?

Students who get less than 20 minutes to eat leave a lot of food uneaten on their trays, said Juliana Cohen, a public health and nutrition professor at Merrimack College and Harvard University’s school of public health. That’s what she found in a 2015 study when she analyzed 1,000 students in a low-income, urban school in Massachusetts during their lunch periods. Cohen reckons students need at least 25 minutes of seat time.

Sixty-five percent of the students in the study had less than 20 minutes to eat their lunch and those students consumed significantly less of their entrees, vegetables, and milk compared to students who had at least 25 minutes to eat. They ate 13 percent less of their entrees, 12 percent less of their vegetables, and drank 10 percent less of their milk, Cohen found. Students were also much less likely to select fruit for their meal.

Seventeen percent of students in Cohen’s study had even less time—under 15 minutes—to eat.

Too-short lunch periods disproportionately harm low-income students for whom school lunch may be their most reliable and hearty meal of the day.

“They are more likely to receive a school meal and they will be standing in that line,” said Cohen. “And they also rely on school meals for half of their daily calorie intake. They especially need that time to eat their food.”

But when it comes to setting the daily schedule, lunch time is frequently whittled away in order to provide more instructional time. Experts like Anderson and Cohen said that principals shouldn’t view lunch and instructional time as an either-or proposition—lunch doesn’t take away from academics, it enhances them.

“Research suggests that when students eat healthier food it is associated with improved executive functioning—working memory, impulse control, everything we think of when we think of making a student successful,” said Cohen.

Proper nutrition helps prepare students for test-taking, said Anderson, and also means fewer students visiting the school nurse for ailments caused by hunger such as headaches.

“We have to work together on this as a whole community,” Anderson said. “The nutrition piece is a very valuable piece in getting the child educated.”

Balancing Breaks With Instruction

At Trailside Elementary, it’s too early to tell what the effects of the slightly longer lunch periods will be, but so far Jones has received positive feedback from students, teachers, and especially parents. The Anchorage school district started the pilot program just this year—in response to a petition from parents.

Lunch period was increased from 20 to 25 minutes, while recess time was upped from 20 to 30 minutes. The five minutes Trailside allocated for transitioning from recess to lunch remained the same.

Participating in the pilot program was voluntary, and Jones was eager to give it a try.

Even though her teachers appreciate the value of giving students more time to run around and eat, losing 15 minutes of instruction time leaves them feeling a bit squeezed.

“Especially those older kids, it’s hard to get the academics in,” she said. “Something has to give, because we didn’t expand the school day.”

So, what can schools do?

While there are no federal guidelines for how long schools should give for lunch time, there are best practices.

Anderson suggests having more grab-and go-options—so students can just walk up and grab, say, a pre-packaged salad with chicken, an apple, and a carton of milk. She also suggests letting students eat in their classroom, so precious time isn’t spent walking to the cafeteria, waiting in line, and finding a seat.

In Houston’s school district, the director of nutrition began experimenting with “family style” lunch service in classrooms, where students and teachers eat together. The in-classroom dining gives students as much as 30 minutes to eat by eliminating the walk to the cafeteria and wait time in line. In one elementary school that piloted the approach in the youngest grades, the principal was able to move the lunch period for preschool, kindergarten, and 1st grade from 10:30 to noon.

Other strategies schools can consider to get students to the tables to eat more quickly are adding additional lines and automated point-of-sale services where they simply have to swipe a card to pay for their food, said Cohen.

There are other scheduling decisions schools can make to ensure students eat more of their meals, said Cohen, such has not scheduling lunch before 11 a.m. and holding recess before lunch—not after.

“It allows students to focus on their meal and not be rushing through their school meal because there’s an incentive to go out and play faster,” she said.

An alternative version of this article appeared in the October 23, 2019 edition of Education Week.
Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 23, 2019 edition of Education Week as Short Lunch Periods Undercut Healthier School Meals

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