Students race to enjoy meals

Monday, December 11, 2006
Timothy Huey, right, talked about how he doesn't have enough time to eat lunch while Bailey Sheehan listened. Both are third-grade students at Franklin Elementary School in Cape Girardeau. (Diane L. Wilson)

Third-grade student Bailey Sheehan sometimes feels rushed to eat lunch in the Franklin Elementary School cafeteria.

"Sometimes we get held up at recess and then you don't get a lot of time to eat," he said as he ate lunch Thursday with fellow classmates.

"We have 20 minutes to eat," said third-grader Jonathan Statler. That's enough time, he said, "if you don't talk."

Across the nation, students have seen their lunch periods shortened in recent years as schools have sought to maximize instructional time, says the School Nutrition Association in Alexandria, Va.

The average lunch period in elementary schools declined from 29.7 minutes in 2003 to 23.7 minutes in 2005. In middle schools, the average lunch period was shortened from 29.7 minutes to 24.6 minutes. In high schools, the average dropped from 31.8 minutes to 26.7 minutes.

The time periods include travel time to and from the cafeteria.

The association recommends a half-hour for lunch including allowing four minutes for students to get to the cafeteria.

"Any time shorter than that you are getting students rushed into eating their food," said Alexis Steines, a spokeswoman for the nutrition association. That can lead to poor digestion, she said.

But many school districts across the nation have 20-minute lunch periods in elementary schools and 25-minute lunch periods for students in junior and senior high schools, according to the nutrition association.

In the Cape Girardeau School District, lunch shifts are scheduled to give students at least 20 minutes to eat lunch. "The 20-minute time has been in there forever," said Lisa Elfrink, food service director for the local school district.

But some schools in the district provide closer to 30 minutes from the time students are let out of class to when their next class starts.

Post-lunch recess also provides students with some flexibility when it comes to finishing their meals, school officials said.

Missouri doesn't regulate how much time children have to eat lunch. That's left up to the individual districts.

"It varies from district to district," Elfrink said.

But the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education does require schools to provide 6 hours and 42 minutes of instructional time during a school day. That limits how much time schools can allocate for lunch and recess, Elfrink said.

Even so, she's heard from parents and students who want longer lunch periods.

Elfrink said she understands the concern. Forcing students to eat too fast ties into the obesity problem, she said.

"If you consume your food too quickly, your body doesn't have time enough to tell you when you are full," she said.

"We are teaching our children to consume their food too quickly," Elfrink said.

At Alma Schrader Elementary School, kindergarteners eat last. Coupled with recess, they don't have to be back in class for 40 minutes.

"I try not to rush kids through lunch," said principal Ruth Ann Orr. "That is not good for kids to be cramming food in."

To help kindergarteners adjust to the lunch period, the school invited parents and incoming kindergarteners to eat lunch at the cafeteria one day last May.

Orr said she encouraged parents to have their children over the summer practice eating lunch in 20 to 30 minutes.

The effort paid off, she said. Kindergartners made it through the cafeteria line quicker this fall, she said.

At Franklin Elementary School, kindergartners get 30 minutes for lunch because they typically are slower eaters, said principal Rhonda Dunham. Students in the other elementary grades have from 20 to 25 minutes to eat lunch, she said.

At her school, students have recess and then eat. "It is just not healthy to go out there and run on a full stomach," Dunham said.

At Central High School, students have 20 minutes to eat lunch. But that doesn't include five minutes allowed for students to get to the cafeteria and another five minutes to get back to class, principal Mike Cowan said.

The high school has four lunch shifts. More than 300 students are served in each shift, he said.

"Kids always complain about lines being long at the beginning of the school year until they learn the routine," Cowan said.

At Central Junior High School, students eat in three shifts. Each lunch period is 32 minutes long, but that includes travel time for students to get to and from the cafeteria.

"We try to build some time in to go to the gym and play basketball or socialize," said junior high principal Roy Merideth. "Most kids don't take a half-hour to eat anyway," he said.

With more than 600 students to feed, the first lunch shift starts at 10:57 a.m. Merideth doesn't think that's too early. "These adolescents are growing. They are absolutely hungry," he said.

But nationwide some school children are getting served lunch much earlier. At a Philadelphia high school, lunch is served every period of the day from 8:20 a.m. to 2:15 p.m., according to a local newspaper.

"I just can't imagine serving lunch that early in the morning," Merideth said.

At the Meadow Heights school campus near Patton, Mo., the school cafeteria daily serves about 600 students -- ranging from kindergartners to high school students.

That's about twice as many students as the cafeteria was designed to handle, superintendent Rob Huff said.

As a result, kindergarten students start eating lunch at 10:45 a.m.

Students, he said, often aren't ready to eat that early.

The district is working to address the issue. A school construction project will remodel the kitchen, add another serving line and allow for an expanded dining area. The improvements could be in place by the start of classes next fall.

The starting time for the first lunch shift likely can be moved back to 11:15 a.m., he said.

In the Jackson School District, elementary and middle school children have 20 minutes for lunch. At junior high and high school, students have a half-hour for lunch, said assistant superintendent Dr. Rita Fisher.

The length of the lunch periods hasn't changed in her eight years as assistant superintendent, Fisher said. "It works, and it is reasonable," she said.

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