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More Time for Lunch: An Op ed

By Anna Mulé, with the SFUSA Policy Committee

It’s back to school time, when the nervous energy of my son is all tangled up with my own mixed memories from public school. I liked school as much as any other 4th grader, but the lunchroom was a real pain point. Anyone with me here? The noise, long lines, bad food and rushed period meant that lunch was something to endure, not enjoy. Food was more closely associated with pressure than with pleasure.

Is this the message I want to pass on to my son? As a parent, how can I make any dent in the vastness of the school lunchroom?

Let’s think about something simple: time.

According to the American Heart Association, people who eat fast are more likely to become obese or be at risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Other studies show a correlation between quickly eating and obesity, depression and anxiety.

As adults, we read lots of listicles about how to slow down — 5 Easy Ways to Eat Healthy! Don’t eat at your desk while pounding out e-mails! Take smaller bites! Chew each mouthful 40 times instead of 15! Eat raw vegetables! Slow the fork down!

But for kids in school, slowing down isn’t exactly an option.

Let’s pull back the curtain on the school lunchroom

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) runs the National School Lunch Program that serves 30 million lunches each school day across 100,000 schools. In one school year, that is approximately 5 billion lunches.

And who is eating those lunches? Many kids live in homes with limited access to fresh, healthy and nutritious food. School meals are a big part of their diet — often nearly half of their daily food requirements. About 75% of school lunches are free or at reduced cost to children from low income households. If we believe it’s essential for kids to learn how to eat healthy, and to understand the link between diet, health, mental well-being and learning, then school is where that will happen.

For the past 50 years, we’ve had a national child nutrition law that gets a periodic update. In 2010, this update brought us the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) that established school meal nutrition standards, like requiring more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and cutting back on salt and sugar. This was an important update.

A recent USDA study shows us that, since 2010, most schools are meeting the new standards. School meals have gotten healthier and more students are eating meals at school. Critics warned that healthier food would mean an increase in food waste and food costs, but that hasn’t happened. Good!

However (you knew this was coming, right?), even with more schools providing more nutritious meals and more children opting for those healthier meals, food waste remains too high, at about 30%. This is where we come back to that simple concept: time.

When the bell rings

Many schools allot just 25 minutes for school lunch. When the bell rings, students leave the classroom, walk to the cafeteria, wait in the food line, choose their meal, then find a place to sit. How much time do you think that leaves for eating? Answer: way less than 25 minutes. This curtailed time in front of a healthy tray has the greatest impact on children from lower income households, who rely on that meal for a significant portion of their daily nutrition.

Now that schools are putting more effort into healthy options, does food waste remain high because students just don’t have time enough to eat, let alone enjoy, these healthier meals?

A National Institute of Health study concluded, “Insufficient time to eat…was associated with significantly decreased entrée, milk, and vegetable consumption…. School policies that encourage lunches with at least 25 minutes of seated (eating) time may reduce food waste and improve dietary intake.”

Despite all the regulations around school lunch, the USDA does not provide national lunch period duration standards. It’s time to change that. Ten states and the District of Columbia have already implemented statues about “adequate lunch period duration,” and they do make a difference. Congress is working now on new child nutrition law, known as the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR).

Back to school

As school kicks off a new year, there is a way for us to change the lunchroom. Let’s urge legislators to promote More Time for Lunch in all schools. The next CNR must direct the USDA to change its approach and provide incentives, guidance, technical assistance and funding to encourage schools to slow down and provide more time for lunch — increasing the average 25-minute lunch to at least 30 minutes, with at least 20 minutes of actual, seated time to eat.

In addition, CNR must enable schools in low-income and underserved communities, including tribal communities, to support paid, district-wide school garden coordinators who would provide experiential and academic programs. These programs would help kids understand, grow, prepare and enjoy healthful, culturally meaningful and climate friendly food.

CNR must also get schools to connect their school meal program to learning readiness and academic achievement in their mandatory Wellness Policy goals and measurements. Lastly, CNR should help schools address other impediments to the enjoyment of healthy, delicious food, like improving school food service infrastructure in kitchens, lunchrooms and points of service; improving recess and lunch scheduling and supervision; engaging student stakeholders; and training kitchen staff to increase scratch cooking of more fresh, nutritious, delicious food.

The school lunchroom does not have to serve up pressure and create food waste. It’s time to bring pleasure to food for our school kids and make sure they all have the energy to learn. When my son and your daughter have more time for lunch, we’ll build healthy communities and wonderful memories.

Anna Mulé is the executive director of Slow Food USA, the national nonprofit organization dedicated to good, clean and fair food for all.