A report from the Office of Washington State Auditor typically isn’t something that gets a lot of attention, but a recent one about school lunch and recess managed to do just that.
“Schools Can Influence Student Eating Habits Through Lunch Practices” revealed that students in Washington aren’t getting enough time to eat lunch, and that schools aren’t following best practices when it comes to scheduling recess time.
But if you’re waiting on the state of Washington to take official action, you’ll end up waiting a long time – years in fact. Here’s what State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal had to say about the timeline for acting on the audit’s recommendations:
My office will initiate a rulemaking process to require schools to provide at least 20 minutes of seated lunch time for all students, as well as recess before lunch for students in elementary school. We are not aiming to make sweeping changes overnight. We expect it will take several years to implement these changes in some schools.
Reykdal requested the audit because of long-standing concerns about childhood obesity and poor student health. This request aligns with concerns raised by parents, pediatricians and other experts over the past several years across the country and in Washington about whether we’re giving children enough time to eat and exercise at school.
What’s in the report
The report recommends these two practices. Research shows both help students eat healthier foods, waste less food and have overall better behavior during the school day. They are:
- implement a policy of 20 minutes of “seat time” for lunch and
- flip the schedule so that recess happens before lunch (not after)
The state auditor’s office looked at 31 schools across the state and discovered that pretty much none of the schools did the first one (20 minutes of seat time) and over half didn’t do the second (lunch before recess). Note: “seat time” is how much time students have to actually eat once they work their way through the cafeteria lines and sit down.
Families don’t have years to wait …
If you have a child in elementary school right now, the prospect of waiting “several years” for the state to figure out this whole lunch thing isn’t particularly appetizing (yes, pun intended). But the good news is that buried in the report are some ideas school leaders in Washington and other states are doing right now to address this. Here are some of them:
- Minor changes to the daily schedule such as staggering certain classes or lunch periods to help shorten lunch line wait times
- Taking a closer look at every point of the lunch buying process and making changes that shorten the time spent in line (e.g., move up or add more points of service)
- Assigning students to sit at the same table each day, so that less time is spent looking for friends or looking for an open seat (note: this one is undoubtedly controversial)
- Setting aside a few minutes of quiet time at the end of lunch so that students can focus on eating
- Displaying a timer that starts when the last student in line sits down; students stay seated until the timer hits zero
There is a “Best Practices” appendix to the report (Appendix E) that lists these and more ideas. Not all are cost free, but many are. You can read the report here (Appendix E is on page 34).
What can families do right now?
If you’re concerned about whether your child has enough time to eat lunch and with the recess schedule at your school, reach out to other parents and talk to them. If you find others have similar concerns, set up a meeting with your school principal and PTA leaders. If you can build enough interest and momentum, consider reaching out to your elected school board members to share your concerns.
And you can start the conversation at your school without having to reinvent the lunch wheel. A ready-made starting point are the suggestions listed out on page 34 of the State Auditor’s Report (which are being used in other schools and states), and the findings of the audit itself (which give you the research to justify schedule changes).
The bottom line
According to the audit, when school principals made lunch and recess schedules a priority, those schools saw more success in making best practices around lunch and recess happen. This report can help principals (and families) do that. Because the research is clear. When students have enough time to eat lunch and don’t feel rushed, they make healthier choices and throw away less food.