The scary truth about school lunch that has nothing to do with the food

I showed up at my kid’s school for lunch and was shocked by what I discovered

Have you ever wondered what it’s like in your child’s school cafeteria? I have. Last week I decided to go check it out for myself.

My fifth grader has been coming home with half-eaten and barely-eaten lunches since he’s been in kindergarten. For years I chalked it up to his sensitivity to the noise in the cafeteria. But this year, he’s been responding to my insistence that he try harder to eat more food with, “Mom, I don’t have enough time. And the kids who get hot lunch are sometimes just sitting down with their food when we’re told to line up to go back to class. And that’s illegal, Mom!”

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Now, I’ve looked — and I can’t quite put my finger on anything on the books that protects a minimum amount of time to eat lunch at school. But I don’t necessarily need the affirmation of a law to agree that children’s lack of adequate time to consume their food is absolutely criminal.

My child’s school has 20-minute lunch periods. That 20-minute period is not seated eating time; that’s the time they walk to the cafeteria to the time they get back in line. So, their eating time is somewhat smaller than that. What I wanted to know was, how much smaller?

So I decided to go have lunch with him to document what I saw, which I did via live tweets. It’s really not a big deal to visit my kids at school, and I’ve had plenty of lunches with my kids over the years.

I located his class as they were just finishing recess and joined them, tweeting all the way. I tweeted our walk down to the lunchroom, when the kids with cold lunches sat down, and when that last kid in the lunch line sat down. Suddenly, it was time to line up and I tweeted that, too.

It wasn’t until I got home and looked over my tweets that I saw the answer to my question, laid out in Twitter time stamps:

Eight minutes.

Watching the kids inhale their food was less disgusting than just plain tragic. As I watched it all play out, I couldn’t help but think that if parents restricted their child’s access to food like this, they’d face a visit from CPS and maybe have their kids taken away.

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But school districts do this nine months out of the year for 13 years, with impunity. And the thing that stood out to me in that lunchroom is that there are literally zero people advocating for the rights of our kids to be able to eat with dignity — or even just eat — while they are at school.

This is not just a problem in my district, either. Twenty-minute lunch periods have become the norm across the U.S. When I started posting on Facebook and Twitter about the lack of adequate time to eat at school, parents from all over relayed that their children often come home hungry because of inadequate time to eat while at school.

One parent said that at her child’s school they alternate week-to-week: one week letting the boys get in line for food first, the next week letting girls get in line first (there’s an obvious gender-binary problem inherent in that little practice, but I digress). She said that her son is only able to get hot lunch on the weeks that the boys line up first.

Some adults recalled just never eating in school because of the lunchroom chaos — one said she existed for years on a bag of chips from the vending machine; another remembered how she would just suck on Mentos all day between classes.

Researchers are worried about the U.S. students faced with lack of adequate time to eat their lunches. One study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, found that kids who had less than 20 minutes to eat — which would be every child in my kids’ district — consumed less food. Specifically, the study found that students who had less than 20 minutes to eat consumed 13 percent less of their main dish, 10 percent less of their milk and 12 percent less of their vegetable, compared with students who had at least 25 minutes to eat.

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And there’s also a growing body of research that suggests an intimate link between nutrition and a child’s ability to perform academically. The CDC points to hunger as a contributor to poor school performance.

Well, duh. When’s the last time you could think straight when your tummy was rumbling? And, come to think of it, what, exactly, do you think you could consume in eight minutes, or even 16? My child, who brought a lunch (and therefore had the most seated eating time), had a huge amount of difficulty consuming his lunch. He basically had time to scarf his sandwich. Here’s a picture that shows his progress:

Watching my child with his packed lunch have twice as much time (and still not enough) as those with cafeteria food revealed the layers of injustice hinged on socioeconomic and racial lines. I mean, packing a lunch is clearly the best way to get a child the maximum amount of time to eat in our schools’ dysfunctional cafeterias. But what about kids whose families don’t have the capacity to pack lunches for their children?

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At my child’s school, a solid majority of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch; so many, in fact, that the school decided to offer free breakfast to all students as a way to ensure that students began the day nourished.

This means that for many students’ families, school meals aren’t just a convenience; for some they are up to 2/3 of the meals that their children are consuming every day. Asking children to gobble their food, frantically, for up to two meals a day for nine months out of the year is like offering them a gift and then snatching it away just as they open it and start to smile.

Restricting food intake in this way is unhealthy and unjust, and it is setting our children up for poor eating habits and lifelong distorted relationships with food.

On my way down to join my child for his last moments of recess prior to having lunch with him, I walked by a classroom that held more than a dozen kids in from recess. Their crimes? Not turning in homework and being behind in their schoolwork. At my child’s school, taking away recess is doled out as a regular consequence. My child says that some kids have “infinity symbols” placed behind their names on the board, indicating how long they will go without.

Eating a meal and getting adequate fresh air and exercise are not frivolous electives that are just disposable for our kids. I wonder at what point schools are going to value the necessary elements of movement, socialization and nutrition. Maybe if we made them standardized tests, they’d matter just enough.

Before you go, check out our slideshow below:

I showed up at my kid’s school for lunch and was shocked by what I discovered
Image: Tomwang112/Getty Images