Bellevue elementary-school parents are demanding that the district give students at least 30 minutes to eat lunches. And they’re prepared to go to court to get it.
Zhifang Yang-Denor shared many pleasant school lunches with her young daughter when they lived in Minnesota, so she had expectations of more of the same when she moved to Bellevue in the fall of 2015.
Instead, she watched in shock as her daughter, after standing in line for food, managed only a few forkfuls of salad before the lunch break was declared over, and kids flocked to the playground for recess.
That experience led Yang-Denor, a registered dietitian, on an 18-month-long quest to extend lunch times at all of Bellevue’s public elementary schools, a journey that could very well end in a lawsuit over what Yang-Denor describes as an uncaring bureaucracy that leaves thousands of children hungry and undernourished every day.
“I want my daughter to know that lunch is important,” said Yang-Denor, who headed a nutrition department at a long-term-care facility in Minnesota before moving to Bellevue when her daughter was in second grade. “In Minnesota, we always had a nice lunch together. After lunch, we even had time for a game. Then here, I was in hell.”
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On Thursday, a law firm hired by Yang-Denor and nine other Bellevue parents is expected to send a letter to the Bellevue School District, demanding that they provide elementary students with at least 30 minutes to eat their lunches.
The letter asks for the issue to be resolved “quickly and amicably,” but says the parents are prepared to take legal action if it’s not.
“They have a statutory duty to provide a nourishing meal, which they’re clearly not doing,’’ said Seth Rosenberg, one of the parents’ attorneys.
The district, in an unsigned email from its communications department, acknowledged it has a problem but blamed the lunchtime crunch on larger enrollments, which result in longer cafeteria lines. The email said the district is looking for ways to speed up school lunch lines and will add five minutes to the total lunch time in September — giving elementary students a total of 25 minutes to get their lunch and eat it before recess starts.
“While a 5-minute change may seem simple, it requires taking various factors into consideration including adjusting the length of the school day to meet instructional time requirements, modifying bus schedules and working with building staff to adjust school schedules,’’ the district email said.
Bellevue is hardly alone in juggling classroom time and union contracts with lunch demands. Lunchtime became a hot issue in Seattle in 2014, when parents demanded that the school district provide more time for recess and follow its policy of providing 20 minutes of “seat time” for kids to eat.
But some parents remain frustrated, saying the lunch policy is not consistently enforced, especially at large schools.
The issue crops up regularly in other districts around the country, too, where lunch times can range from 10 minutes to more than an hour. Some districts have uniform policies for all schools, while others allow individual schools to find what works for them. In the Lake Washington School District near Bellevue, for example, 29 elementary schools set their own schedules, with most choosing 25 to 30 minutes for lunch, a district spokeswoman said.
Although there are regulations and recommendations regarding school lunch times, there is no legal requirement that a district allot 20 minutes for eating, said Dana Parsons, director of nutrition services for the state agency that oversees Washington public schools.
Parsons said federal regulations call for an “adequate” amount of time for students to eat their lunches. The state’s administrative code, she said, says only that “school lunch periods shall allow a reasonable amount of time for each child to take care of personal hygiene and enjoy a complete meal.”
Yang-Denor maintains that Bellevue’s solution — adding five extra minutes to the total lunch period next year — is not enough. She points to recommendations from The American Academy of Pediatrics and The National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity (NANA), both of which call for students to have at least 20 minutes of eating time.
In March 2015, graduate students at the University of Washington teamed up with Seattle Public Schools’ nutrition department to study whether students were consuming enough nutrients during their 20-minute lunch periods.
The findings: on average, students had less than 13 minutes to eat, even though a minimum of 20 minutes is recommended. The study noted that students eat better when they are given more time to eat, they’re less irritable and perform better at school, and they eat more fruits and vegetables when recess is scheduled before lunch. They also waste less food.
Yang-Denor might not have been so shocked by the routine at her daughter’s Bellevue school had she not moved from a place that gave students a full 30 minutes for eating.
After her first experience at Puesta del Sol Elementary, Yang-Denor complained to the lunchtime staff and was directed to a table reserved for kids who hadn’t finished their lunches. Her daughter, though, didn’t want to finish, and ran outside to join her friends.
Yang-Denor said she returned the next day and witnessed the same scenario. She met with the principal, who was sympathetic and began a conversation with staff to make changes, she said.
She didn’t do much more right away because she was new to the school, and was concerned about being a troublemaker.
But she started up again in March, emailing the principal, then the district’s nutrition director. When the school year was about to end, she said, the district agreed to make adjustments at her daughter’s school and explore other solutions over the summer.
Yet when the 2016-17 school year began, the problem remained, and Yang-Denor began reaching out to parents at other Bellevue elementary schools. Within days, she said, she received hundreds of responses that included parents who said their children didn’t even have enough time to eat lunches they brought from home.
Koan Maurer, a mother of two whose son is a Bellevue fourth- grader, said she took up at the issue as she began to learn more about the importance of “seat time” from Yang-Denor.
At one point, Maurer started packing smaller lunches, removing all the packaging and cutting up her children’s meals into small bites. Even then, they still came home with full lunchboxes at times.
“I thought, ‘Oh, well. That’s the way things are,’ ” she said, but then learned there was research and best practices.
Yang-Denor took comments from Maurer and other parents to the school board. The district formed a lunch study team at Puesta del Sol, and in February Yang-Denor said they told her it would schedule 30 minutes for lunch and figure out ways to move the kids through the line more quickly.
But in March, the district said that information was in error; instead, the kids would have 25 minutes.
In an unsigned email to The Seattle Times, the district said it believes the extra five minutes, along with more efficient lunch lines, will allow all students sufficient time to eat lunch. It said it reached that conclusion based on the pilot at Puesta.
Yang-Denor, who was on the study team, is not convinced.
She said she went to Puesta two days ago and timed the line: Even with prepackaged food and check-out scanners, only nine students per minute moved through the line. On busy days, when as many as 160 students move through the lunch line, that means more than 40 percent of the students will not have the full 20 minutes to eat.
One way or another, Yang-Denor said, her children are going to have a proper lunch.
For now, that happens when she picks them up after school.
When her daughter and son settle into the car, the first thing she does is hand them a full meal.