For those of us who eat lunches at our desks — or steer with one hand while holding a burger in the other as we run errands — being able to sit down for 20 minutes for an uninterrupted midday meal might sound pretty leisurely.
That 20 minutes is proving less than ideal, however, for students, particularly at the elementary level, according to a report recently released by the state Auditor’s Office that finds that most students have actually far less time to sit down and eat a healthy lunch and are wasting food — and losing out on nutrition — to get out the cafeteria door and on the way to recess.
At the request of state Schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal, state Auditor Pat McCarthy’s office completed a review of school lunchtime and elementary recess scheduling that included observation and a survey of principals at 31 schools in 12 counties. Included in the audit were three Snohomish County schools, including Edmonds School District’s Beverly Elementary, Granite Falls School District’s Mountain Way Elementary and Mukilteo School District’s Mukilteo Elementary.
Each of the three county schools, like nearly all of the other schools visited in the audit, scheduled 20 minutes for students to eat lunch. The American Academy of Pediatrics does recommend a minimum of 20 minutes, but it makes a distinction between time seated for lunch and time allotted for the lunch period.
Both the audit and a 2015 study of Seattle Public Schools by the University of Washington’s School of Public Health — and, yes, they used a stopwatch — found that students actually are seated for lunch for only about 13 of the 20 minutes allowed. The seven minutes lost for eating were spent getting from class to cafeteria, standing in line and finding a seat.
Auditors and research also noted more food thrown in the trash as students raced through their meals before an after-lunch recess. More than half of the schools in the audit scheduled recess after lunch, rather than prior to lunch.
The waste of food represents, of course, lost nutrition. Kids being kids, with limited time for lunch — and the playground calling — most will first eat the foods they like best, such as pizza or french fries, and toss their fruits and vegetables.
The result: About 70 percent of vegetables and 50 percent of fruits were thrown out, one study reported, which contributes to a childhood obesity rate in Washington state of 12 percent.
The UW study found significantly less food waste at schools that scheduled recess before lunch, than at those where recess followed lunch.
The audit makes two main recommendations: make sure students have 20 minutes — seated — to eat lunch, and for elementary students, move the recess period before lunch.
The result of recess before lunch, studies have shown, is less wasted food but also a decrease in discipline problems on the playground, in the cafeteria and in the classroom. Students coming back to class after lunch, rather than recess, were more settled, calmer and ready to learn, the UW report found.
The state audit also recommended training for lunchroom staff to encourage better eating behaviors and increased communication among administrators, teachers and food service staff.
Admittedly, adjusting schedules to meet these goals is easier said than done, especially for schools that have limited space for lunch, are overcrowded, feel pressure to maximize classroom time and face limited budgets to employ non-teaching staff.
But schools will need to start those preparations.
Reykdal, the state schools chief, in a letter included in the report, said he intends to begin drafting a requirement for all schools to allocate 20 minutes of seated lunchtime and move recess before lunch.
“The audit supports the OSPI value of ‘Focus on the Whole Child,’ Reykdal wrote. “Students who have access to nutritious meals and the time to consume those meals are better equipped to meet educational milestones.”
State lawmakers, just months away from their next session, also should consider what additional funding can be provided, especially to smaller and disadvantaged districts, that can help schools, especially at the elementary level where students can develop good eating habits, to meet a basic education need.