MUKILTEO — Lunch is a timed sport for Mallory Banfield.
The fifth-grader at Mukilteo Elementary School packs a lunchbox with food that is quick and easy to eat to give her a competitive edge.
She also brings a stopwatch.
She clicks it on when she sits and stops the counter when the lunch monitor says it’s time to go.
“Today, I had 12 minutes to eat my lunch. On Friday, I only had 10 minutes to eat lunch,” Mallory, 10, told the Mukilteo School Board Monday night.
The soft-spoken red-haired girl sported the blue stopwatch with 12:36 — 12 minutes, 36 seconds — the amount of sitting down time clocked for that day’s lunch.
After the meeting, she said, “I need about 20 minutes to eat, at least. Otherwise we have to wolf it.”
About 10 children and parents voiced concerns at the meeting. They want the district to set a defined amount of seated time for lunch.
Jesse Cantor, father of a Mukilteo Elementary School student, gave a letter to the board from a pediatrician citing the unhealthy affects of an abbreviated lunch time.
Ash Sanders didn’t speak, but she brought the Spider-Man lunch box she’d packed that day for her first-grade son at Challenger Elementary. Inside was an unpeeled orange, half a sandwich and crackers she said he didn’t have time to eat.
Twenty minutes is about the total time allotted at most Mukilteo elementaries and many other schools throughout the state.
Total time is not the same as seated time. It is the time from start to end, and doesn’t include washing up, walking to the cafeteria, waiting in line and navigating a seat in what are often gyms converted into lunchrooms during the noon hour.
“We heard our families and students and we always appreciate hearing their perspectives,” district spokeswoman Diane Bradford said via email. “We will continue to work with our building principals on how best to balance lunch and recess schedules.”
Michael Simmons, school board president, said every person who spoke will get a response from the board.
“The message was loud and clear,” Simmons said. “If a change is needed, then we’ll look at it and see what needs to be done. Our folks in the district, they’re the experts, not the board.”
Mukilteo Elementary was among the 31 schools visited as part of a performance audit released in August by the Office of the State Auditor. Auditors also visited Beverly Elementary in Lynnwood and Mountain Way Elementary in Granite Falls.
The report concluded: “Nearly all 31 schools visited during the audit did not give all students the recommended minimum seated lunchtime of 20 minutes. Principals are responsible for setting school schedules, often without specific guidance around lunchtime. Most principals did not realize the actual amount of time all their students had to eat lunch and tended to overestimate it. About half of principals interviewed who allocate less than 20 minutes of seat time believe students already have enough time to eat.”
On Wednesday, state auditors presented their findings to the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee, which is made up of Democratic and Republican lawmakers from the House and Senate.
Those overseeing school lunch and child nutrition programs for the state public school system also addressed lawmakers and support the audit findings. They pointed out they are about to begin evaluating how six schools work to ensure a seated lunch time of 20 minutes. Those schools will be studied for two years and, at the end, a report on best practices will be issued.
School lunches have generated concern and publicity nationwide.
A 2018 survey by the School Nutrition Association, a national organization of school nutrition professionals, found a median of 25 minutes reported for elementary schools, but this was not seated time.
Lunch is key to a child’s social and physical development. It’s a break from learning to refuel with friends.
Yet it has to fit in with curriculum, budget, staffing, space and transportation — all those other things grownups micromanage. Students aren’t allowed to eat at their desks, like so many adults do at work.
Melanie Banfield said she has been complaining to district officials for seven years about the lunch issue.
She said her daughters bring their lunches because waiting for a hot meal takes even longer with less seated time to eat.
Finger biometric scanners are now used at eight of the district’s elementary schools. Students put their index finger on a small scanner at the checkout and it links to their account, saving time for those getting hot lunches.
Banfield timed a few lunches before Mallory, her middle child, took over the stopwatch.
“It was 10 minutes. I watched a bunch of kids pick up their trays and throw most of their food away,” Banfield said.
Lunchbox hacks don’t do the trick.
“I chop up fruit instead of sending it whole. I peel oranges. Even with all the shortcuts we take, half of the lunch always comes back,” said Cristina Cantor, whose daughter Gemma is in third grade at Mukilteo Elementary.
“The real intent here is to get the school board to take the auditor’s report seriously,” said her husband, Jesse, who spoke at Monday’s meeting.