A Look at School Lunches
Time is of the essence when it comes to school lunch.
"You don't like cashews, but I like cashews, will you try one for me," Denise Reynolds says to her daughter Nia, a Parkade Elementary School student.
Reynolds likes to keep tabs on what Nia is eating. That's why she packs Nia's lunch most days, and eats lunch with her at school when she can.
"I like to be able to kind of have control over what she's eating, and this way I can check what's left in her lunch box when she gets home," Reynolds said.
But what Denise can't control is the amount of time Nia has to eat her lunch. Parkade Elementary School, like most elementary schools in the Columbia Public School District, runs a speedy school lunch schedule.
"To get everybody through by 1:30, we have to kinda click people along," Parkade Elementary School Principal Betsy Baker said.
Nutritionists say just "clicking along" is not a healthy habit for kids.
"What we're jeopardizing is if the child is not given enough time to eat, they eat very fast and that is unfortunately a risky behavior," state nutrition specialist Alama Hopkins said.
The schedule says the students have 20 minutes for lunch, but by the time they leave the classroom, go through the lunch line, and sit down, they really have less than fifteen minutes to eat.
A study from the National Food Service Management Institute says when lunch time increased from 20 to 30 minutes kids wasted 40% less food, consumed 56% more calcium, and consumed 46% more vitamin A. One reason a longer lunch means a healthier lunch is kids skip to dessert first, and then don't have time for healthier foods.
This fall, Hopkins started the Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids Coalition.
"One of the things we want to tackle is this very issue, is a more relaxed dining experience for our kids," Hopkins said.
Something else Hopkins will tackle is the order of lunch and recess. She says kids rush through lunch to get to recess when lunch comes first.
"Recess is such a competitive target, you could say, that kids will not miss recess....and certainly my own son has said it's so important for me that I just won't eat," Hopkins said.
Kids eat healthier and drink more milk if they play first and eat later. Midway Heights Elementary flipped its lunch and recess schedule.
"They just kind of get right down to it, and I think having recess first, they've worked up a little bit of an appetite and they're ready to eat... We're all convinced that this is the way to go," Linda Klopfstein, Principal at Midway Heights, said.
Reynolds would like to see other schools go that way too.
"If they could fit it in the schedule, to try that, I would support it," Reynolds said.
The district sets a guideline of 60 minutes for lunch and recess, but schools decide how to use those 60 minutes. Federal regulations are also loose, saying schools must provide "adequate time" for lunch. Research shows and Hopkins agrees, adequate time means more than 20 minutes. For parents who like to watch what their kids eat, it's time to make a healthy change.
Right now seven out of 19 elementary schools in the Columbia Public School District have switched to recess before lunch for all grades. Only Paxton Keeley gives students 30 minutes for lunch.