Lining Up for School Lunch — Before 9 a.m.

October 14, 2009

By Mark Bishop, Deputy Director

Sometimes the obstacles to a healthy school lunch have nothing to do with the food served on the plate. Instead it's a number of factors, including the environment in which students eat.  Nutrition advocates have been bringing important attention to the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization, which Congress will consider later next year. However, we don't want to lose sight of the broad challenges that schools face and opportunities that we have to make changes in how students eat and how that supports quality education.

This recent article in The New York Times highlights once such factor — overcrowding in schools and inadequate cafeteria space:

At Francis Lewis in Fresh Meadows, Queens, which has nearly twice as many students as the 2,400 it was designed for, administrators have been forced to look for every possible nook of space and cranny of time to cram in more bodies. The first lunch period starts at 8:57 a.m.; the last one ends at 2:46 p.m… 

Lunch is served for seven periods, with up to 600 students sitting on the benches at any time. The cafeteria workers put out a few breakfast choices during the first lunch shift, like croissants and bagels, and occasionally bacon and eggs, which disappear fast. Still, on most days, nearly two-thirds of the early eaters opt for the lunch fare…

“If you’re really hungry, you can eat anything at any time,” said Jasmine Cepeda, 15, who is one of the roughly 380 students who eat in the first lunch period, about three hours after she wakes up at home in East New York. “Sometimes you just eat it because it’s there and because you know by eighth period you’ll be starving.”

The early eaters have spent part of the first three weeks of school perfecting their grazing habits. Some have only coffee before they leave home. Several hang out at Arby’s after their 3 p.m. class gets out, snacking on barbecue sandwiches or more fries.

And in our Through Your Lens campaign, we saw this entry that highlighted the same issue. Too many students, too little space, lunch when most people are putting down their coffee. How could any student learn when her stomach is grumbling in the afternoon?

For a school that has double the number of students that it was designed for, there are few good short-term answers. And a properly funded Child Nutrition Act sure won't do much to fix this problem. But this does highlight the complex challenges schools face — challenges that sit at the intersection of education, nutrition, environmental health and student development.

Of course the long term answer is finding adequate funding for our schools — including school facilities. 

Check out the Take Action section in our Through Your Lens campaign. Getting more funds to improve school facilities is hugely important, and Congress is debating this issue now. Hearing from all of us about these challenges can ensure that we can better fund our school buildings.