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Kids should get universal free school meals—and have enough time to eat them

3 min read

We can credit the COVID-19 pandemic with creating momentum for universal free school meals after decades of calls that didn't come to much. Today, eight states have some version of the policy in place, and it's a very good thing. Universal school meals have significant benefits, including lower food insecurity, better educational outcomes, and in some cases fewer disciplinary issues.

But there's something many school districts need to change to ensure that kids get the full benefit of universal school meals: They need to give kids more time for lunch. The CDC recommends 20 seated minutes at lunch. Not 20 minutes – 20 minutes in their seats to eat and socialize. But many districts fall short of that, and it has an impact.

My home state of Massachusetts has universal school meals. My child's school – and I believe this is true of much if not all of our district – has 20 minute lunch periods, of which kids might spend less than half seated. What does that mean? According to a study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, "students with less than 20 minutes to eat lunch consumed 13% less of their entrées, 12% less of their vegetables, and 10% less of their milk than students who had at least 25 minutes to eat. While there were no notable differences between the groups in terms of entrée, milk, or vegetable selections, those with less time to eat were significantly less likely to select a fruit (44% vs. 57%). Also, there was more food waste among groups with less time to eat."

Even where lunches haven't gotten shorter over time, kids may be spending more time in line as more of them get school lunches or as school populations grow. And the head of the School Nutrition Association pointed out to Education Week that the successful push for more fresh fruits and vegetables in school lunches means that lunches can take longer to eat: "When you think about eating an apple versus a canned pear—those types of textures, those things make a difference."

Having enough time to eat a full lunch is a basic humanity issue that is also emphatically an equity issue. "Many children, especially those from low-income families, rely on school meals for up to half their daily energy intake so it is essential that we give students a sufficient amount of time to eat their lunches,” Juliana Cohen, the study's lead author noted.

My own child's experience points to another way lunch length is an equity issue. Early in second grade, he reported that he was spending most of his lunchtime in line, waiting for his school lunch. But his friends who brought lunch from home didn't have to wait – they were sitting and eating and chatting while he was in line. So kids who get school lunches not only lose time to eat, they lose time to socialize that their peers whose families send lunch get. Social time in school should not be dependent on family income.

Making and sending lunch to school was a hassle for us as working parents and it meant that my kid didn't get the range of different foods he would have gotten through the school kitchen – he got extremely sick of turkey sandwiches and cream cheese sandwiches – but those are minor things. For many other kids it's a much bigger issue. It's about having time to eat what may be a major source of nutrition in daily life. But it's about having time to relax and goof around and just be kids for a few minutes, and kids from low-income families should get just as much of that as kids whose families don't rely on free school meals.

Our district, by the way, has a policy requiring the 20 seated minutes recommended by the CDC. District leadership ignored that policy in a push for more instructional time. Because kids will definitely get more out of an extra few minutes of math worksheets if they've just waited in line for a while and then had less than 10 minutes to bolt down their food. (In case the sarcasm isn't clear, they definitely will not. This is poor educational practice as well as poor moral practice.) Our district leaders talk a lot about equity, but I don't see how you can claim to be promoting equity while specifically disadvantaging kids who rely on free school lunch for food security. 

It's time for school districts to understand lunch as an important part of the school day, one that helps academic and social-emotional learning as well as, you know, feeding hungry kids.


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