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Sunday, May 6, 2012

School Lunch Races: It's Just Food For Thought

What do we teach our children about eating?

They should rush to the table,
quickly gobble favorite parts of their meal,
and dump the rest.

How do I know this? A new national survey by the School Nutrition Association shows U.S. elementary children have about 25 minutes for lunch; middle school and high school students about 30 minutes. That includes the time students need to go to the restroom, wash their hands, walk to the cafeteria and stand in line for their meals.

Government school nutrition experts generally agree that students should have at least 20 minutes to eat their lunch. The typical length of the lunch has been about the same since 2009, but it's shorter than in 2003 when kids got up to five more minutes. Children in some countries, such as France, get as long as one to two hours to eat lunch.

Remember, the current 25-30 minutes average is the length of the entire lunch period. How much time is spent in the act of eating? Would you believe 10-11 minutes? This time has been verified by many studies across the nation. The students, themselves, have used stop watches to time the rush to chow. For example, Minneapolis sixth graders Talia Bradley and Antonia Ritter reported the 10-11 average in their school on the op-ed page of the Minnesota Star Tribune.

"So what?" you say. "Isn't this just a sign of the busy times and proof educational institutions can better maximize their time?" In fact, these time limits are partly due to the pressures upon schools to add more instructional time to their day amid big budget cuts. Now so much takes priority over school lunch concerns: No Child Left Behind, standardized test scores, and a multitude of extra-curricular activities.

Let's look at the lesson of the frenzied lunch. Schools are encouraging students to learn the following:

* "Eating food is not a pleasure; it is a necessary inconvenience, class."

* "Time spent eating is an interruption of a productive day, children."

* "Consume more calories, kids." (Research says people who eat quickly do so.)

* "Hurry up and eat so you can feel hungry again after an hour,  folks." (Research says people who eat quickly do so.)

* "Throw away those whole fruits and nasty vegetables. You don't have time to eat them anyway, boys and girls."

* "Eating one of those nutritious entree salads takes longer than eating the cheeseburger or the chicken nuggets, so pass them up, pupils."

"And, off the record, kids, keep these things in mind if you want more free time":

* "Bring your lunch or hit the vending machines for the junk, convenience and snack foods."

* "Don't talk or socialize with others at lunch -- you need your mouth to speed chew."

* "Cut line to save time, but don't get caught."

* "Give an underclassman money to buy your portion as an extra.

Oh boy, I bet some of you are really getting tired of my harping; however, I want to register my complaints about time demands and unneeded stressful situations. Having spent decades as an educator, I logged quite a bit of school lunch time. My memory still serves me relatively well. Students and staff love time devoted to lunch. The much-needed break from the unceasing regimen of timed class after timed class was simply "heaven."

Of course, nourishment was very important to all, but socialization and even quiet relaxation were very important too. An Ohio teacher afforded one planning period a day (usually 45-60 minutes) uses that time to make lessons, to grade tests and papers, to attend to disciplinary and guidance problems, and to secure needed materials and equipment to teach.

Teachers do not have the luxury of wandering the building at will and interact with other teachers, students, or administrators. This pace of keeping up with instructing five, six, or even seven classes a day is quite frantic and the stress builds school day after school day. Counting the required work at home and extracurricular duties, most concerned educators work well into each night.

Students? They are going through the same demanding schedules that confront teachers. They must be attentive, read, write, problem solve, question, speak and do many other tasks in a single school day. These days, a dedicated student is juggling a schedule filled with demanding work. Some may tell you that is not true, but these are typically the students who choose to do less themselves, not those who are dedicated to make the best of their educational opportunities.

After school, the caring students usually have extracurriculars, related study, and homework. Add the pressures of maturation and socialization to their school days, and I think anyone can see how much pressure these kids are under. Similar to the benefits provided to instructors, lunch time affords students a necessary time to refuel, to socialize, and to rest. Ten minutes to chew and a total of 15-20 minutes to attend to everything else? Ridiculous!

I was always a proponent of a longer lunch period. Even if adding minutes to the school day required more money or a longer daily schedule, I believe the benefits would greatly outweigh the investments.

It amazes me how everyone agrees that schools should be more attentive to personal needs and more conscious of creating the best learning environments while they allow districts to continually rush students and staff through the learning process as if they expect every participant to retain every grain of knowledge quickly sifts through their minds.

True comprehension, assimilation, and problem solving require time to consider alternatives, time to make informed decisions, time to consume the best information, and time to digest the acquisition of the lesson in an atmosphere conducive to further learning. To me, time was almost always the variable that got shortchanged because those in charge put their trust in the "necessary" quantity of information instead of providing more time in school to deal with quality information.

Apply this simple requirement for time needed to best structure the educational activity of providing school lunch:

* Students must consider their food alternatives and time limits.

* Students must decide what best nourishes their growing bodies.

* Students must make good decisions and choose their most nutritious lunches.

* Students must consume necessary quantities of the various foods during lunch.

* Students must relax and digest their lunches.

* Hopefully, students will enjoy their lunches and the time spent in the lunchroom facility, so they want to do it all year.

And this doesn't count locker time, restroom time, and the process of deciding whether to gather courage and ask to sit next to the cute classmate that has been the flesh-and-blood angelic fantasy of a year-long dream date. Are these secondary lunch time concerns important? You're damned right they are. Do they affect a student's learning ability? As my wife would answer, "Duh? What do you think?"

Kick back the clock and give the young people time. Pushing them through the system or shoving them into premature stressful situations is not wise. Give them some more much-needed time -- time to mature, time to enjoy innocence, and time to swallow their lunch.
"We are living in a world today where lemonade is made from artificial flavors and furniture polish is made from real lemons." ~Alfred E. Newman
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