Dear TPS: Our Kids Need More Time To Eat

cafeteria tray, for article on school lunch time

In general, kids need more time to eat school lunch.

Ironically, back when I worked in a school, I had very little time for my own kids. Justin and I were constantly exhausted from working all the time, and both of our employers ranged from annoyed to intolerant of the frequent meetings and time we needed for Noah’s special needs accommodations. 

Like many working parents, by the time we would get off of work for the day, we had very little energy left for extracurricular activities and school events, and any kind of volunteer opportunities, class parties, or daytime awards ceremonies were usually completely off the table. 

I often felt disappointment at my children’s disappointment when we constantly told them we couldn’t attend this or volunteer for that. We had sparse relationships with their teachers and were barely aware of who their school friends were, and for our kids to join after-school clubs would cause a transportation or childcare crisis we weren’t equipped to manage. 

If you really think about it, school and work keep us away from each other for about as much time as we spend together during the week, which means about half of our kids’ waking lives are spent with other people. 

Now that I work from home, which has quite literally changed every aspect of our life for the better, I am thrilled to have a flexible schedule that allows me the chance to step up and volunteer at school. Lucy somehow volunteered me as a field trip chaperone on a day trip to Philbrook, and I loved getting to meet her classmates and be part of her life. 

Lucy and her best friend at Philbrook

Before we left that morning, I had somehow agreed to volunteer at the book fair the following week. This is a life I only dreamed of previously, a life of being there for my kids and being involved at their school while still helping my family by earning a living on my own schedule. It’s a life most parents will never get to have because they’re too busy trying to put food on the table.

Between the field trip, which arrived back to the school just in time for lunch, and the book fair, I had the chance to eat lunch with Lucy three times in two weeks. And that’s when I realized something I never would have known if I hadn’t ever had the chance to volunteer:

We have to find a way to give our kids more lunch time.

The day of the field trip, the kids returned around lunchtime, so I decided to stay with Lucy while she ate. We worked our way through the line and finally sat down. Only a few minutes later, I realized the third graders were staring at me as if I had a second head. 

“Mom, look down,” Lucy told me, indicating a towel that had been passed to me. “You have to clean the table.” I dutifully wiped the table and passed the towel on down the row, watching the children wipe and pass one by one down the line. I love the idea of kids taking responsibility for their lunchroom and honestly would love to see them take on more cleaning-related responsibilities like kids in Japan do

But I quickly realized this was more than taking responsibility for a lunchroom chore. It was also their signal to hurry up and finish their food. As the towel passed, most of the kids ate faster or stood up to throw away their plates. 

The next week when I joined Lucy while working the book fair, however, the same thing happened. I had barely bitten into my TPS McRib—which, side note, was awesome—when along came the passive-aggressive towel-shaped warning bell.  

Lucy began rapidly shoveling food in her mouth at that point and then picked up her tray, half-eaten, to throw it away while I stared at most of my own. 

Not today, Satan. I would not be parting with my delicious McFakeRib before its time. I put my hand on Lucy’s shoulder and told her, “Eat a few more bites so you’re not hungry before the end of the day.”

But the third day was when it really hit me how serious the situation is. That’s the day I realized that the first two days, they were lucky to have as much time as they did. When I got to the food line, it was Lucy’s turn to be last, a job she takes pride in.

We waited patiently as the kids made their way through the line. No one was taking longer than they should to make it through the line. The lunch lady was working as fast as she could to serve everyone’s plate, and the kids were chatty, but they weren’t holding things up. 

I paid for my lunch, pleasingly gooey Dorito nachos with a delicious pile of chicken, and went to sit down next to Lucy. The moment I sat down, the lunch monitor announced “four minutes” to the kids. 

My internal monologue was a stream of sailor words as I watched the Towel of Doom make its way down the table, children shoveling food into their mouths. I eyed the slow eaters, the quiet, wide-eyed kiddos who looked at their food in defeated resignation. Lucy’s adjacent three friends began to make motions to throw their full plates away.

“Kids. If you want to eat your lunch, I’ll make sure you get to,” I told them. 

The lunch monitor came over momentarily to usher everyone outside for recess and make room for the next group. I told her they needed more time, and she indicated we should move to the side table to finish. Although I assume moving to the side table is always an option, practically speaking, most of the class certainly can’t move to the side table to finish, and even if they did, it would cut into their short recess. 

A Closer Look

I decided to put on my best Veronica Mars and dig a little deeper. I asked a teacher about it, she told me the classes take too long to get to the lunchroom.

My children’s classrooms are opposite the building from the lunchroom, easily a four-minute walk if you hustle. Easily six minutes if you have 34 kids in the line and there’s a traffic jam when you get to the lunchroom. Kids then spend upwards of eight minutes waiting in line to get their food. 

I suck at math, but even I know that subtracts out to be at most 12 minutes to eat and at the low end, four.

The children at my daughter’s school are allowed 35 minutes total for lunch and recess. That’s “twenty minutes to eat, and 15 minutes for recess,” according to a representative from the school. 

When they go outside for recess, they are required to run one lap, or two if they are too loud in the lunchroom, before they go play. And Lord knows they need the exercise and the discipline. But with only 15 minutes for recess, that’s more time cutting into their recess which equates to more pressure to toss their food in the trash and get out that door. 

Next, I called the Education Service Center. The representative I spoke with told me that individual schools determine the length of the lunch time and that I needed to speak with my school’s principal. She stated that to her knowledge, no parents have complained about the length of school lunchtimes to their principals, and that it would be adequate if the children did not waste their time on talking. 

Now, I’ve done the math and I’ve done the lunch thing too many times to believe it’s long enough even if they don’t talk to each other, but let’s pretend like that is the problem. Our children spend around six hours a day sitting in a desk working independently with very little time to forge bonds or connect with other children outside of gym and recess. They should be given enough time to talk over their meals. Fellowship over food is one of the fundamental bonding tools of the human race. 

I would completely understand the talking-too-much argument if the time they’re allotted for lunch allowed say, wasting a full 25 minutes and just playing around. But when they’re getting six minutes from the moment they sit to eat before going to recess, saying that talking is the reason simply promotes an unhealthy view of children’s socialization needs. 

I asked the TPS rep what I should do to see about extending TPS lunchtimes, and she directed me to speak with my school’s principal. She stated that lunchtimes are determined by each principal, who sets the school’s start time and finish time. 

According to her, extending the lunchtime would be a simple matter of the principal adding time to the beginning or end of the day. She challenged me to speak with mine, and I considered it for a while before deciding that I didn’t believe marching into the principal’s office and outlining my argument for a longer lunch would be the best course of action. I love this school, and I imagine my kids’ principal is doing exactly what TPS has recommended and that there are very specific top-down reasons schools feel pressured to limit lunchtime. I don’t want to put any additional pressure on the school’s administration, especially when they’re clearly doing an amazing job. 

Lucy and Arthur’s faculty is doing an amazing job.

But more importantly, I know this isn’t a problem that’s limited to my kids’ schools. It’s a district-wide issue, and it’s one that could change with a cultural shift from TPS upper-level administration. I’m not interested in changing lunchtimes for only my children’s sake. I want to give all TPS kids more time. 

The TPS representative told me if I was looking for a larger change, I would need to speak to the school board, but that I needed to first look over their rules online because there are certain topics that are verboten. I looked it up, and I don’t believe this topic makes that list, but I’m also not sure I have the public speaking skills to outline my reasons in five minutes or less to a roomful of school board members.  

And if I’m being completely honest, the written text is my domain, so I’m outlining my argument herein in hopes that someone else will help me take up this cause. 

The Lunch Crunch

As I reflected on my experience, I recalled seeing random Facebook posts and a recent news item about the lunch crunch, but I hadn’t really put much thought into the issue. I also hadn’t put much thought into the fact that my kids were climbing into the car and begging for food before we reached the end of the block. After all, they’re tweens. 

One day, we switched roles and Justin started picking them up instead of me. I warned him, “You’ll need to have a snack planned out ahead of time. They’re super hungry after school.”

But now I realize that has less to do with the fact that they’re growing tweens and much more to do with the two-thirds of a lunch that goes in the industrial-sized garbage can every day. 

I want to be very clear about this: I don’t fault anyone at TPS for the short lunch times and recesses. But that doesn’t mean it’s not time for a change. 

In fact, I know some of those teachers go out of their way to bend the rules just slightly so those kids get a few more minutes to scarf their food down at breakfast or lunch. And it’s not just TPS. According to this news item, one-fifth of U.S. school districts give their kids less than twenty minutes to eat. 

But the lunch crunch is harmful to our kids, and it needs to be changed. I don’t believe it will be a simple fix, but we should begin working to create a way for our kids to have at least ten minutes to our children’s lunchtime.

Here’s why:

* Food insecurity at home is a reality for many TPS kids. 

In Tulsa county, more than 34,000 of our kids are food insecure. As a family that has struggled ourselves in the past while working for low wages, my family knows firsthand how much working class and socioeconomically challenged families depend on school meals.

All of our TPS elementary schools get free breakfast and lunch so they can have the fuel in their bodies needed to learn. And yet many of our kids are hungry all day when they don’t get enough time to eat. How many are going to bed with an empty stomach at the end of the day?

* It promotes unhealthy eating habits.

My family is just as guilty as the next of scarfing down a meal on the fly every now and then. But doing it every day can be detrimental to good health, something we need to be teaching kids in school.

The overwhelming body of scientific evidence points to the dangers of fast eating. Eating quickly has been incontrovertibly linked to obesity, which we also know impacts the poor at a higher rate than the rest of the population.

According to the American Heart Association, fast eating is also linked to metabolic syndrome, which predisposes individuals to a host of health problems including obesity, diabetes, stroke, and heart disease.

* Even the fast eaters aren’t eating enough.

As I witnessed firsthand, even most of the kids who quickly shovel food in their mouths are still barely eating half their food. If a school lunch has 600 calories, most of the kids in my daughter’s class were eating roughly between 200 and 300 calories. That might be enough for some of the little ones, but it’s not remotely enough food for a tween, especially the sixth graders who are on the threshold of puberty.

Many of those fifth and sixth graders are as tall and weigh as much as many adults, and as any parent of a tween or teen can tell you, those kids go through massive growth spurts. According to the National Institute of Health, an eight-year-old like Lucy might only need 1400 calories a day if she’s only somewhat active. If she only eats 500 of those at school, she’s still going to need a nice big meal for dinner, but it should be enough.

But an active 11-year-old might require 2000 calories. If that child eats 200 calories at breakfast in a school like my kids’ school where the teachers go out of their way to make sure the kids eat breakfast but then only eats half of her 600 calorie lunch, she’s coming up with a deficit of 1400 calories by the time school is out. Chances are very high she isn’t going to clear it with dinner and snacks.

* Slow eaters may not eat at all.

This is what worries me the most. I watched half of Lucy’s class toss most of their food in the trash. Most of the kids who weren’t eating their food at all were just slow eaters. Many of these kids were also far too timid to ask for extra time to eat.

Using my TPS-acquired math skills, I’ll guesstimate that the slow eaters only eat one-fourth or less of their food, so approximately 150 calories. That might be enough for a Gwyneth Paltrow cleanse, but it’s not enough for our kids.

* Our kids are dehydrated.

I’ve heard the argument made that milk is overemphasized as a dietary necessity, and I’ve no wish to drop into that research rabbit hole today. But even if you just look at milk as the only lunchtime liquid they receive, it’s not good that many of these kids aren’t drinking their milk at all.

As I was sitting with Lucy’s class on one of my visits, I wondered why three of the kids in our immediate vicinity hadn’t opened their milk. I reminded one of the kids to drink his milk, and being a respectful dude, he smiled, picked it up, and began wrangling with the packaging.

milk carton, for article on school lunch time

That’s when it hit me. They aren’t drinking their milk because they can’t spare the one to two minutes it takes to open the carton. This revelation was confirmed when unopened milks began stacking up in front of me, their grateful owners tossing out “pleases” and “thank yous.” I passed them back opened only to watch the kids take a drink and then have to toss them within a minute or two.

The worst part about this is that our kids don’t get much to drink during the day because it’s just not practical to let kids constantly get up to drink from the water fountain and then inevitably use the bathroom.

Way before I had kids, I worked in a TPS pre-K classroom with a veteran teacher who was so concerned about this, she went out of her way to make sure each child had their own water bottle in class every day. If the kids aren’t drinking their milk and they’re not drinking during class, that means they’re going as long as eight hours without a full glass of fluid.

That’s just not healthy.

* The food waste is tremendous. 

There are a number of reasons we should be working to reduce food waste in schools, the primary one being it’s one of the few places we could actually make an impact. On average, each student will waste about 36.5 pounds of food during the course of the school year. It’s not the biggest source of food waste in the country, to be sure, but the possibility that it could be reduced on the local level somewhat by extending lunch times is worth considering.

food waste concept, for article on school lunch time

But if those reasons aren’t enough for you, listen to these TPS parents:

“Lanier…It’s less than 25 minutes to get through the line, open food, and eat. I’ve spoken to several teachers about it. And a principal. Nothing changed.”

“Mine go to Wright. They get twenty minutes to get their food and eat. It’s definitely not enough time. Half the time they come home with the main portion of their lunch still in their lunchbox because it’s quicker to eat small things.”

“My child is in a TPS school and a few parents and teachers alike were saying twenty minutes is not enough time to eat, especially for kids who get their lunch from the cafeteria.”

“Council Oak Elementary. The first week of school, my kindergartner tells me she had two bites before she had to throw away and leave the cafeteria. Yes, I complained to the teacher and the principal. Response from the principal was defensive and dismissive. They get twenty minutes, and that includes ‘travel time.’ “

“It’s not enough because by the time the last kid gets through the line, it’s time to go!”

“Our school will let kids stay to finish lunch but that cuts into recess, and I’m sure most kids would rather go to recess than eat.”

“TPS. My kid constantly complains that she doesn’t have enough time to eat.”

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