This editorial was published by the Columbian of Vancouver, Wash.


As if they did not have enough on their plate, school administrators now have something else to chew on.

A recent report from the Washington State Auditor’s Office suggests that many public school students do not have enough time for lunch. Students are recommended to have at least 20 minutes of seat time to eat, but a survey of 31 elementary schools — including three in Clark County — finds that few of them do.

“Twenty minutes allows kids to eat a complete, healthy meal, and one that’s going to sustain them until they get out of school until the end of the day,” said Wendy Barkley from the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

In the big picture of what administrators must juggle to enhance the educational experience, lunches might seem like small potatoes. With questions about curriculum and discipline and inclusiveness and standardized tests and … the list goes on … officials have plenty to worry about. But there is good reason to add lunch times to that buffet of issues.

A study from the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University has found that students with fewer than 20 minutes to eat are significantly less likely to choose a fruit and on average eat 12 percent less of their vegetables than peers who have 25 minutes to eat. “You want (students) to select a healthy meal and eat that healthy meal,” Barkley said.

It has been well-documented that students who eat well do better academically and present fewer discipline problems in the classroom. (Note to parents: The same applies to a good breakfast.) And short lunch periods are one of the primary reasons students might not have a nutritious lunch.

In addition, we should mention, teachers also probably would welcome a few extra minutes for lunch while their students are in the cafeteria.

Extra time, however, is not the only factor keeping students from having an adequate midday meal. The auditor’s office recommends that recess be held before lunch rather than after, as students often rush through their meals so they can get to the playground. State superintendent Chris Reykdal said, “You have to get recess first. They sit down and know that the 20 minutes is just for eating.”

Some of the credit for bringing attention to lunchtimes goes to Caressa Milgrove, a mother in Vancouver Public Schools who has championed the issue locally and in front of the Legislature. “We know when kids are given more time, they eat more nutritious food and they’re more able to meet their educational goals,” she said.

Lawmakers this year approved funding for a two-year pilot program that will have six elementary schools develop plans for extending lunch periods.

That is not as easy as it sounds. Academic schedules are complex, and must work around a full menu of demands. Extending lunch periods for, say, fourth-graders might impact the P.E. class schedule for first-graders. Reykdal said, “We are not aiming to make sweeping changes overnight. We expect it will take several years to implement these changes in some schools.”

But the effort will be worthwhile. Given the evidence that proper nutrition is essential for academic success, lunch schedules should receive the same attention as, for example, a school’s reading program. Milgrove said: “We’re talking about hungry kids. It needs to be a priority. Nothing is going to work if our kids are hungry.”

That is something that school administrators should digest.

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