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Schools Can Influence Student Eating Habits Through Lunch Scheduling Practices

August 28, 2019 Download this report as a PDF »

Discussions of nutrition in schools tend to focus on ways to encourage children to be more active, or on the types of foods they are served. While those issues are clearly important, just as important is that the way schools structure lunch time. It can significantly affect children’s eating habits and their performance in the classroom.

Washington’s Superintendent of Public Instruction has been concerned about childhood obesity and poor nutrition among elementary school students. We worked with the Superintendent to identify options for a performance audit that could identify meaningful ways schools could address these issues.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) and school districts play a key role in lunchtime scheduling practices. We found leading practices and solutions that OSPI can share with schools to help them craft school schedules. The goal is to help children eat more healthfully, a habit that – learned early – can last a lifetime.

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 Report Credits Report Number 1024471

Key results

This performance audit explored issues around lunchtime scheduling practices in elementary schools. We wanted to know how school lunch schedules might affect students’ health and behavior in the classroom.

Research suggests that two leading practices — releasing children to recess before lunch and then giving them enough time to eat — increase the likelihood that children will eat more and healthier foods. Unfortunately, our results also show that most of the schools we looked at have not adopted these practices. There can be legitimate reasons for this, including facility limitations and fiscal constraints.

But we also saw that schools whose principals made lunch-scheduling practices a priority were better able to make these practices work. In our view, OSPI can play an important role by requiring schools to give students adequate time, once seated, to eat. The agency can also encourage and facilitate the practice of recess before lunch.

Background

Obesity rates in school-age children have more than tripled since the 1970s. While there are many possible causes, researchers think school lunchtime practices offer important opportunities to help children eat more healthfully. After all, when school is in session, most children eat at least one meal a day on school property. Ineffective lunchtime scheduling – including how long children have to eat and when they play at recess – can present problems. This is especially true for younger students in elementary school.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee championed the Healthiest Next Generation Initiative in 2015, which encouraged state and local agencies to collaborate toward an objective “to help our children maintain a healthy weight, enjoy active lives and eat well.” In the 2017-2018 biennium, the state and federal government spent nearly $240 million on various childhood nutrition programs designed to serve nutritious meals to school-age children and promote lifelong healthful living.

Less time to eat

Research shows that the way schools schedule lunch can significantly affect students’ eating habits. Students who have more time to eat their lunch consume more nutritious food and waste less food. Education and nutrition groups suggest a minimum of 20 minutes seated lunchtime.

Nearly all 31 schools visited during the audit did not give all students the recommended minimum seated lunchtime of 20 minutes. Most principals did not realize the actual amount of time all their students had to eat lunch and tended to overestimate it. About half of principals interviewed who allocate less than 20 minutes of seat time believe students already have enough time to eat.

Wrong time to play

Research also suggests that students who have recess before lunch eat more fruits and vegetables and drink more milk, waste less food, and display better overall behavior. Several states have policies encouraging school districts to adopt recess before lunch.

More than half of schools surveyed or observed did not schedule recess before lunch

Barriers to better lunch schedules

Principals are responsible for setting school schedules, but they rarely have specific guidance around lunchtime. Those interviewed cited many challenges in preparing lunchtime schedules. The reasons they offered for not following the two leading practices included:

No cafeteria: Schools without a dedicated cafeteria assign children to eat in multi-purpose rooms, the gymnasium or their classrooms. Shared spaces mean principals must allow time for other activities in that room.

Overcrowding: Trying to feed more children than the school was designed for can lead to longer lunch lines and less time to eat.

Too few supervisory staff: The time students have to eat may be directly linked to the staff principals have available to supervise lunch or recess time.

Insufficient funds: Strapped school budgets may mean no money to pay cafeteria staff, teachers or support staff to work longer hours.

Scheduling conflicts: Some principals said they struggled to balance teaching time – especially for subjects taught by specialists like art, music or physical education – with recess and lunch times.

Handwashing: The layout of the school or playground may make it harder to have children wash up after coming in from recess to eat.

Preferences of officials and staff: In some cases, principals and teachers like schedules as they are, or believe the research is unconvincing, and so are reluctant to make changes.

Solutions for lunch schedules

Some principals told us they succeed by prioritizing lunch and recess when they design schedules. The most commonly cited solutions include:

  • Making lunch a high priority when developing daily schedules. This helps ensure lunch period minutes are not used for other things.
  • Making minor schedule changes. Changes might include staggering certain classes or lunch periods to shorten lunch line wait times.
  • Monitoring and evaluating lunch line efficiency. Be willing to make changes when necessary, such as changing how student payment information is entered into the point-of-sale cash register.

Principals said several things helped them decide to schedule recess before lunch, and to convince teachers to accept and support the practice:

  • Their own commitment to the practice, and making it a priority when scheduling
  • Having additional advocates to support the practice
  • Sharing research related to leading practices, to support the decision as they communicated it to staff

Other states have published materials to help principals and districts address similar challenges, including California and Montana. They are discussed in detail in our report.

Recommendations

To address the issue of scheduling lunchtime to reflect leading practices, we recommend OSPI:

  1. Update the WAC related to seat time during lunch to include a defined minimum amount that aligns with leading practices
  2. Develop and share guidance to help schools overcome barriers to implementing a minimum of 20 minutes of seated lunchtime
  3. Consider working with school districts and stakeholders to address barriers, such as:
    • Association of Washington School Principals
    • Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee representative(s)
    • Washington Association of School Administrators
    • Washington Education Association
    • Washington School Nutrition Association
    • Washington State Parent-Teacher Association
    • Washington State School Directors Association

We also issued guidance to all Washington school districts to work with school principals to put the two leading practices discussed in our report into action.