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Kids don’t have time to eat school lunch, Washington aims to fix that

For years, schools have been getting complaints that kids aren’t given a long enough lunch break.

“I only finish not that much of my lunch,” said Issaquah third grader Ava Knutzen. “I only finish half of it because [the lunch break] is so short.”

Ava got so frustrated with being hungry after lunch she circulated a petition at school, asking for a longer lunch break, and gave it to her principal.

“We have 20 minutes to eat lunch, but it’s not actually 20 minutes,” she said.

Ava says that the 20 minutes includes walking to the lunchroom and waiting in line.

“We only have 10 to 15 minutes to eat. It starts at 12:00 and ends at 12:20, but we start cleaning up at 12:15.”

Lunch and the law

By law, schools must provide a certain amount of learning time and recess. Lunch is unregulated, so it’s often the first thing to go when school’s need extra minutes. But thanks to bill HB 1272, spearheaded by Vancouver, Washington parent Caressa Milgrove, the state is getting ready to run a pilot program that addresses the school lunch conundrum.

“Horking your food down is unhealthy for so many reasons,” Milgrove said. “It’s shown to be connected with obesity and other digestive problems. In the process of getting the bill started, and through the Legislature, I talked to a lot of parents and several parents told me their kids were developing physical ailments from having to eat so quickly. If you also think about elementary students, they’re losing teeth and trying to eat an apple or eat carrots is hard enough and trying to have them rush through it they’re not going to eat the healthy food. They’re just going to eat what’s soft and easy to get down really quickly. So they’re losing out on quality nutrition and that’s the stuff they end up throwing away and they need it the most.”

Milgrove says the CDC and USDA both recommend a minimum of 20 seated minutes, not including walking to the lunchroom, waiting in line, and cleaning up. While the bill itself did not pass, $126,000 was added to the state budget to fund a two year pilot program where six schools will be incentivized to reconfigure their schedules to provide a longer lunch.

A lot of parents and teachers are frustrated and confused about why the lunch break isn’t simply extended. But the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction says it’s a complicated scheduling issue. Adding on minutes to the school day messes with bus schedules and after school programs and legally they can’t take time away from learning.

“It’s definitely a more complex issue than I originally thought, getting into it as a parent advocate,” Milgrove said. “Our school took it away from recess which is not a solution I’m really happy with it. The state law says that lunch needs to be a reasonable amount of time for kids to eat their meal and have proper hygiene. But ‘reasonable’ is not defined. Whereas other parts of the day, like instructional hours, there are set limits of time”

“It’s not that there are these horrible administrators who are saying, ‘Mwa ha ha, we’re making lunch shorter,'” she said. “But because there are so many other pressures in the whole school system they’ve got to dedicate so many hours to this and so many hours to that.”

Pilot program

The six schools selected for the pilot will each have complete freedom to arrange the school day however they please. And at the end of two years, the state doesn’t necessarily plan on implementing a longer lunch program.

Leanne Eko is director of child nutrition services at the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

“I’m not sure if we’ll get to the point of mandating but definitely being able to have some concrete ideas of what has worked and even what hasn’t worked,” Eko said. “When schools are trying to figure out how to make this work, we have some real scenarios from schools that have tried it and can give people some concrete best practices.”

She says some schools are experimenting with moving recess before lunch. Often, when lunch is ending, kids are told that if they’re finished eating, they can go out early for recess. So a lot of kids will dump the rest of their lunch and run outside.

Schools will be invited to apply for the pilot program this summer and six will be chosen by fall.

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