School Lunches: No Time for Healthy Eating

March 11, 2009

By Lindsay Muscato, HSC Writer/Communications Specialist

When students must speed through their lunches, schools may be reinforcing bad habits, experts say. In a recent New York Times blog post, Dr. Arthur Agatston — creator of The South Beach Diet — urges schools to schedule longer lunch periods so that children have adequate time for healthy eating. Agatston says:

Schools are rushing kids through meals really quickly just like they’re eliminating exercise. The kids have to be preparing for standardized tests all the time, but it means they are missing out. The kids will be happier and do better if they can have a somewhat leisurely meal in a positive atmosphere.

Schools around the country have shortened meal times in order to accommodate more students — and some students eat either very early or late in the day. In Chicago, for example, some students may eat lunch around 9:30 a.m., The Chicago Tribune reported last year. 

But experts say that eating quickly often leads to over-eating. Parents also worry that children may not have time to eat much at all — leading to lagging attention spans at the end of the school day.

Julie Parrish, a parent and former school food service director in Oregon, told HSC that her children often come home with uneaten food from their lunch boxes and describe the rush in and out of the cafeteria. When she was food service director, Parrish says she timed students going through the lunch line and found that students at the end of the line had less than 7 minutes to eat.

“Kids need fuel in order to learn,” Parrish says.

HSC’s school wellness director Jean Saunders reported that one unique characteristic of the school lunch programs she visited in France (as part of the 2007 International Exchange Forum on Children, Obesity, Food Choice and the Environment) was that students had plenty of time to sit down for their mid-day meal and focus on fresh, healthy foods that engage the senses.  Read more about French school lunches in Jean’s blogs from the Forum.

Also – check out Jean’s post on Agatston’s other research and the promising results from his school lunch “lab” in Florida.