As students stride back into Washington schools, a lightly regulated aspect of their day deserves prompt attention.
A state auditor report found elementary schools frequently allow students less than 20 minutes at the lunchroom table. The absence of strong state guidance about school scheduling has led to children rushing down inadequate meals. Nutrition experts recommend 20 minutes at minimum, which some other states require as a matter of law.
Washington’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction should build a lunch policy that better addresses student needs. Principals draw up school schedules in Washington’s 295 public-school districts and must work within staffing and other limitations. They need a voice in the process as well, so that a sudden mandate does not jolt schools’ ability to function.
The state’s existing guideline for how much lunchtime to provide students consists of an unacceptably vague single sentence of state administrative code: “The school breakfast and school lunch periods shall allow a reasonable amount of time for each child to take care of personal hygiene and enjoy a complete meal.” Guidance on what “reasonable” means varies by district. Only one of the 31 elementary schools auditors visited ensured that every student had at least 20 minutes at the lunch table.
A corresponding online survey found 65% of principals self-reported that their school schedule gives no student 20 minutes seated at lunch. About half of those considered the time allotted sufficient.
This practice shortchanges students’ nutritional needs. Children, particularly young ones who first reach for less-nutritious favorites like French fries, eat more vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables if allowed more time at the table. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reported in 2015 that children with at least 25 minutes at the table eat better meals and throw away less than students given less than 20 minutes to eat. Children who scarf down pizza deserve time to linger over their carrots too.
Washington lags behind the vanguard in addressing this challenge. Five states — Connecticut, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Carolina and West Virginia — along with Washington, D.C., require at least 20 minutes of school lunch time after everyone gets food, a critical qualifier. A 20-minute total lunch loses precious time as students stand in lunch lines and make their choices, creating an equity issue. Students who bring lunch get more table time.
The report also recommends that all elementary schools set their recesses in the morning, which is worth the OSPI’s study. Twelve states encourage morning recess, which studies show builds a better lunch appetite. However, the changes required to reconfigure class schedules and ensure hand-washing discipline for students who play before eating should be considered in crafting new recess policy.
Lunchtime can be gently expanded without being shackled to other shifts. OSPI Superintendent Chris Reykal has said he will push to make a 20-minute lunch and morning recess official state policies. In doing so, he should listen to the observations of front-line educators and build consensus for this sensible repair.