Starved By the Bell

Thanks to the stricter nutritional guidelines in the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, public schools have served fewer low-quality lunch tropes like nachos and greasy pizzas. But critics point out that students are not eating their healthier meals. Those opponents cite reports about soaring food waste and diminished revenues, attributing such costs to the unappetizing nature of the new largely plant-based, whole-grain rich meals.

While the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was not meant to improve palatability, its regulations on meal components have actually brought kids to eat healthier. In the fall of 2012, schools across the nation witnessed that students grew to like their changed menus by the end of that year. Respondents at 70 percent of elementary schools reported that students liked the new lunches, according to a 2014 survey by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

However, short lunch periods are more substantial challenges to implementing the healthy lunch plan. With the release of surveys and studies, parents and school administrators have not only acknowledged inadequately short lunch period as a common problem, but also that having insufficient time leads to unhealthy eating. Increasing the time students have to eat will incentivize kids to embrace healthier options and will help schools reach desirable consumption levels. But raising awareness for this new avenue for school lunch reform and implementing the time change are far more difficult than they seem.

School Pizza

The Health Effects of Short Lunches

The consequences of having inadequate time to eat lunch—as little as 15 minutes in some schools—are serious. Eating nutritious foods like whole grains, leafy greens, and whole fruit takes longer because it involves peeling and chewing of crispy or hard textures or the extra crunch from fibrous substances, peels, and shells. Hence, less time to finish lunch means lost vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that are vital to growth and development.

The toll is especially heavy for students from urban and low-income communities who rely on school meals for about 50 percent of their daily calorie intake. Researchers from Feeding America explained that ensuring adequate access to food at school is especially important for kids living below poverty level, who are more susceptible to food insecurity and thus have little opportunity to compensate for low caloric intake outside of school.

Time-crunched lunch periods also cultivate the habit of fast eating, which makes students more likely to end up overfilling their stomachs. Therefore, the risk of obesity from overconsumption is also worrisome, both for children afflicted by food insecurity and for those who are not. Eating too fast at once overloads the stomach and keeps one from feeling full, as gastrointestinal hormones do not have enough time to communicate the brain about satiety. This produces two linked but opposite results: obesity and malnutrition. If they have insufficient time, kids eat lunch too quickly or throw away most of it—and either way, they are more likely leave school still hungry.

Research conducted at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health confirms the intuition that increasing lunch length would boost consumption. The study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, concluded that students in rushed lunch periods ate less of every meal component. Kids who were given less than 20 minutes to eat consumed 13 percent less of their entrée, 10 percent less of their milk, and 12 percent less of their vegetable, compared with those who had at least 25 minutes. While a five-minute difference accounted for such disparities in consumption levels, 20 percent of parents of students from kindergarten to fifth grade reported that their children do not even have 20 minutes to eat, as a poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health shows.

Cafeteria Exposure

Exposure and Adaptation in the Cafeteria

Prevailing narratives about nationwide reactions to new lunch menus tend to leave out insufficient time or treat it as a tangential issue, making it seem as if kids waste food only because they refuse to eat. Although the task of serving balanced meals needs to be addressed first to lay the groundwork for better eating habits, it is misleading to consider lengthening lunch time problem as a bonus. Providing healthier meals is meaningless unless it comes hand in hand with efforts to ensure a sufficiently long time for kids to eat them. We can push for longer time for lunch in ways that can both boost consumption levels and allow students to rethink their attitude towards healthier foods by making use of the better food offerings.

Better options in the cafeteria make kids more likely to adopt healthy eating habits. According to Juliana Cohen, a professor at the Chan School of Public Health, the increase in fruit and vegetable consumption since the passage of the 2010 guidelines is evidence that kids are likely to ease into new palates through repeated encounters with unfamiliar foods. “The entire school day is an opportunity to learn,” Cohen told the HPR. “If fruits and vegetables are not in front of them, [or] if we don’t even put it on their trays, they are not going to eat them. If we put it in trays in front of them, they are actually going to eat. I think a big part of it is about affirmation and exposure. The more we expose, the more normative the food becomes.”

That being said, kids could become more receptive towards healthier options if they had more opportunities to take creative approaches to their meals, like coming up with interesting combinations of flavors or assembling their ideal platter of healthy foods by visiting different stations. Making lunch periods longer is essential to encouraging kids to experiment with food and retrain their taste buds.

Longer lunch periods may also cultivate an understanding about the process of eating healthily. They involve savoring food, having lively conversations, and learning to test inhibitions about new dishes. With a more leisurely mealtime, students could stop treating lunch periods as a mere pit stop before returning to the classroom for more important activities. Some doubt whether a school cafeteria can teach students how to eat well, since kids usually spend more time eating at home, where meals are more of an experience than part of an agenda. However, students can indulge in their school meals like they would at home once lunch periods cease to be stressful and time-crunched.

Tricky Recipe

A Tricky Recipe

While a good number of schools meet the 20-minute recommended minimum for lunch periods approved by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity, the standard is misleading. Scheduled lunch time needs to account for the travel time to the cafeteria, the wait in line, and the time it takes to get to the cashier and to the table.

Solutions could include introducing more efficient cashiers or automated sale systems, increasing the number of serving lines, or even just making sure kids can show up to lunch periods at the right time. “It’s very easy to say, ‘Kids need more time for lunch!’ But implementing that goal is not always so easy,” said Bettina Siegal, the creator of the blog The Lunch Tray, in an interview with the HPR. “For example, what if a school is overcrowded or has a too-small cafeteria? How is it going to increase lunch periods yet still get the entire student body through the lunch room over the course of the middle of the day?”

Cohen reiterated that increasing lunchtime efficiency is complicated, adding that “each school district has its own challenges. … Some of it could just be about showing up to lunch periods at the right time.” Longer lunch time may lead to a lengthening of the school day by 10 minutes or more, which means schools would need to adjust teachers’ reimbursement for increased time on the job. Likewise, Patricia Montague, CEO of the School Nutrition Association, told the HPR that the organization left out its advocacy for lengthening lunch times in its position paper for the 2015 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act reauthorization because the lunch period is a school district issue, not a federal one.

There is no correct order for tackling nutrition, palatability, and timing to revamp public school lunch. Taste and time would amplify the success of stricter guidelines that have replaced junk foods with healthier offerings. School lunch reform should strive towards recasting schools as environments that are conducive to learning what to eat and how to eat it well. Giving students more time to eat lunch is key to decreasing waste, meeting nutritional goals, and emphasizing the value of healthy eating both in and out of the cafeteria.

Image credits: USDA/Flickr

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