Elementary school kids have a lot of thoughts about lunchtime at school. One frequent complaint? They don't get enough time. Now they've got the weight of a state audit to back that up.
A new state performance audit looked at whether elementary schools in Washington are providing kids the recommended 20 minutes of seat time to eat their lunch. The auditors found that almost all of the 31 schools they visited did not give that much time, and a majority of schools send kids out for recess after lunch instead of the other way around.
State Auditor Pat McCarthy said research has shown that it's better for kids to have recess first.
“They’re anxious to get outside. They’ve been sitting at a desk, and the advantage of having recess before lunch is they get all of that out,” she said. “Then they’re more inclined to sit there and relax and not gobble their food down or stuff it down or throw it away so that they can get outside and go to recess.”
McCarthy said the performance audit resulted after a conversation with State Superintendent Chris Reykdal about issues the auditor’s office should examine. In a statement, Reykdal said his 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,” adding that he doesn’t intend to make “sweeping changes overnight” and that it will likely take several years to implement the changes in some schools.
McCarthy says she hopes the audit will prompt school districts to re-examine their policies so that kids get more time to eat. Five states — including Connecticut, Mississippi and New Mexico — already require schools to give students at least 20 minutes of seat time for lunch.
One big reason to give kids more time to eat their lunch is that they tend to throw away less food as a result. And research has shown that children tend to eat the less healthy stuff first, such as french fries or pizza instead of vegetables.
This is an issue that parents and some educators have raised for a long time. One elementary school educator, who asked not to be identified by name for fear of retaliation, said he’s observed that students who get school lunch lose eating time because they have to stand in line and then get condiments and cutlery, unlike students who bring a lunch from home and can immediately start eating. He said that’s troubling from an equity standpoint, because many of the students come from low-income families and receive subsidized or free meals.
“With the whole child perspective more important now than ever, why are we forcing our children to eat at Mach speed and cutting their recess time?” he said.
According to the audit, principals said they face a number of challenges in allocating more time for school lunches. Some schools lack a cafeteria, others are overcrowded and some have too few supervisory staff for lunchtime.