Let’s talk lunch: should schoolkids get more time to eat?

Our kids can eat lunch in 15 minutes, but should they? New Westminster District Parent Advisory Council (DPAC) wants to double the eating time for elementary and middle school children from 15 minutes to 30 minutes so that our kids can have more time to chew. In this week's New West Wednesday, let's talk about lunch: do you agree with DPAC that kids need more time to eat?

Our kids can eat lunch in 15 minutes, but should they? New Westminster District Parent Advisory Council (DPAC) wants to double the eating time for elementary and middle school children from 15 minutes to 30 minutes so that our kids can have more time to chew.

Currently, students have 15 minutes to eat their lunch, but as I understand it, that time is supposed to include washing up before eating, clearing away lunch kits at the end and getting coats & shoes on for playtime afterwards. Even if washing up & donning boots takes only 5 minutes (and I would guess it’s longer for 30 small fry in a small space), that only leaves 10 minutes to eat – and no time for talking.

It may sound like a small issue given the complicated stuff SD40 is wrestling with, but it’s not just about placating Poky Penelopes and Slow-eater Peters (and their helicopter parents). There are good reasons to believe that a 15-minute eating period is not only uncomfortably short (do you take only 15 minutes for lunch? I sure don’t) but also has some potentially serious impacts on kids’ health and ability to learn in class.

In a letter of support for DPAC, former Chief Medical Health Officer for Vancouver Coastal Health Dr. John Blatherwick writes:

In this time when we realize that the link between obesity and poor health needs a concerted effort by our entire community, it makes sense for the New Westminster School Board to consider the research that [DPAC Vice-chair MaryAnn Mortensen] has put together showing an optimal lunch eating time between 24 and 35 minutes. It becomes obvious that a 45 minute lunch break is insufficient.

We need time for students to wash up, eat, relax and PLAY during their lunch break. If we need a minimum of 24 minutes for them to eat, it is obvious that a 45 minute period means something is dropped. Often this is eating (which leads to poor class room outcomes in the afternoon), washing up (which leads to health problems), relaxing (poor afternoon education outcomes) and PLAYING (both poor education outcomes and health problems).

The New Westminster School Board is in the education business. And good education outcomes come with good health outcomes…As the former School Medical Health Officer for New Westminster School District, I strongly urge the Board to NOT put this issue aside for another year. Health and education outcomes will suffer. This is an issue to address now.

As Blatherwick mentions in the last paragraph, this issue will be discussed at tonight’s school board meeting. Those with strong opinions on the issue may want to speak out at the meeting at 7:30pm at City Hall tonight.

What do you think? Should School District 40 extend the eating period for students? If so, how do you think the district should adjust the school day so that teaching and playing time aren’t impacted?

Briana Tomkinson

Briana Tomkinson is a Montreal-based writer and original founder of Tenth to the Fraser. She really likes to write letters by hand.

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  1. I think the science is clear that children in grades K-12 need a minimum of 24-35 minutes to eat. They already get 30 minutes to play at recess and an additional recess of 20 minutes in the morning at Lord Tweedsmuir and I wouldn't touch the play time for the world. Kids need to move or they can't focus and that isn't good for anyone in the classroom.

    My belief is that our school board recognizes the science but without more voices/opinions than little 'ol' me, a DPAC motion and a few others, maybe this can wait. Question is, how long? Our kids have gone without a reasonable eating period for more than 9 years. In my discussion with Dr. Blatherwick, I quoted a study that claimed that children who either eat all their lunch too fast or who ate less than the necessary amount of good food suffer immune suppression. His response? "Of course they do!".

    Next November brings an election for our school board and city. DPAC will hold its own election. I will have to begin this anew with a new school board and IF I'm re-elected, a new DPAC. After much discussion (two years) , the science has been accepted by our school board. The figures offered by our school district of having to hire 73 new Noon Hour Supervisors at a cost of $306,600 annually in order to implement this change are more than shocking. So too is the figure of $70,000 annually to maintain it.

    If we have gone with merely 22 Noon Hour Supervisors (NHS) for 11 of our schools with the help of 44 Special Education Assistants (SEA's) , how can this be that we would need 73 additional staff for 15 minutes longer a lunch break? " Are the numbers being padded to dissuade immediate action?" is the question I keep hearing over and over. The question I have is where are our children in the centre of a decision to put off this vital change for another year? Our children need to come first and they shouldn't have to wait another year.

  2. We never had any paid supervision in the classroom when I was a kid at Spencer. They younger grades (1-3 maybe) had a grade 7 voulenteer and the rest were self supervising. (Circa 1984-1990)

    Worked great.

  3. Hi Will,

    I think the problem now is that with only 15 minutes in which to achieve so much more than eat, the older kids are (rightfully) anxious to get outside. Older kids finish faster and from what I hear, they don't all wash their hands. Sometimes the monitor's energy pushes the kids to eat faster (not healthy) and other times they outright tell the kids to "Hurry uuuuuup". Kids should be allowed to be kids. Social responsibility should not mean children are doing an adult's job others say. Whose job is it to ensure our kids get adequate supervision in school? I'm all for older students mentoring younger ones but many parents question older students providing supervision for younger ones.

    I'm not certain how supervision of our intermediates; grades 4-7 West side, 4&5 East side and our grades 6, 7, 8 middle school students works.

    The other mentionable fact is that we are now a middle school system. Our two West side schools, Ecole Glenbrooke and Queensborough Middle School surely don't need the same supervision our elementary schools do. Until the new middle school is built, West side schools have grade 7 monitors. East side schools have grade 5 kids monitor the classrooms and all elementary schools have some adult supervisors (combination of NHS and SEA's) who walk the hallways and look in on the classrooms every so often.

    Tonight is the first, second and third reading of the school budget which means that any costs associated with lunch time changes cannot happen unless someone has a brainwave on how this change can happen for 2011-12.

  4. My son goes to QE elementary. He says Grade 4 students supervise his class and an adult monitor comes in once in awhile. He used to go to a school that allowed longer for lunch and he definitely ate more. At QE, his lunch is a sandwich, juice box, one snack and that's it. He is sometimes ravenous after school. To me, 15 minutes seems too short, though he says it is long enough.
    It seems strange to me that it would cost a whole bunch or anything at all to add 10 minutes or so to eating time.

  5. I definitely believe that the children in younger grades should get as much time as my high school student does. In the New West Secondary the students get 1 hour for lunch, why oh why does my grade 4 child only get 45 minutes. I think also they should go back to having lunch in the gymnasiums and then they could cut down on monitors if they think that is necessary. I ate my lunch in a gym for all the time I went to Lord Kelvin(1977-1982) and then the classrooms would stay cleaner as well. We got an hour for lunch at that time and started the day at 9 and finished at 3 instead of starting at 8:55 and ending at 2:45 which cuts off lunch time by ten minutes a day. Especially now that kindergarteners are going to school all day and they are thinking of sending 4 year olds all day as well.

  6. Sheila, most schools in New westminster have a 45 minute lunch period, what does Queensborough elemetary have?

    1. One hour. Recess is 15 minutes. School runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Everything is always just a little different in Queensborough!)

  7. Odd…from what I understand, the teachers do not permit 'volunteers (Parent or Student) to assist in supervising. They negotate to be paid more money to do so – however this blog indicates from those at ground level (parents) that other students are actually doing the work. Isn't that fraudulent behaviour? As well, has anyone asked the Trustees, the Superintendant and the Teachers how long they get to eat their lunch? How about a story on that Briana – now that might prove interesting. While I am sure children can pound back their lunch in 15 minutes, what about those who are slower eaters. As adults we relish the op to taking our time, savouring our food while enjoying great conversation with friends at trendy cafes etc …yet we apparently do not want the same quality of life for our children. We need to recognize this for what it is ….the unions are clearly playing with the health or our children. They should have a full hour to eat and play – their choice of what the 'mix' is – end stop! This social engineering at this level has simply gone over the top. It is up to the teachers/union/trustees to provide the environment best suited for the children – not themselves. Thank you to the DPAC New West group for bringing this critical issue forward.

    1. You have hit the nail right on the head! Teachers are hired to teach and should provide input only.
      Are we back to our union friendly School Board and BCTF controlling our kids health and eating habits. If so, you are right MaryAnn, there is an election on the horizon.

  8. Thanks Sheila, It seems unfair that Queensborugh Elementary gets one hour for lunch compared to the 45 minutes the rest of us get. What happened to equality across the district?

    1. This is my only opinion,I have been working in schools for over thirthy years and after raising two of my own, I learned one thing, kids are and will be kids for ever, you give them 20-30-40 minutes and they take that many minutes to eat their lunch, no news here. Also, Kids spend the some time at school that they spent at home to eat, trust me I seen it over and over 10 minutes and it's all gone. Furthermore, don't forget that supervisors are doing their very best in the schools while supervising to ensure that everything goes smooth and ok, but their job is not to replace, mom or dad. We all know that its impossible to please evrybody.
      What I don't undestand is why are we making a big fuss over this, do you realize that there is going to a cost for this if approved , as well as, allowing more time for lunch, trust me, it won't change much for the kids, they only have a lot of time in their hand, and it will require more adults time and money, and with the way the Prov. Gov. give mony for educaation (rather slushing funding for everything these days) good luck on your mission. Supervisors, Teachers and EAs time is costly and at the end of the day, what have we gain, less time for babysitting for some, or really did we do our kids a favor by adding more minutes to their lunch? I personally think, that in this matter, many adults are getting lost on a paddle of water and make an ocean out of the whole thing. There is nothing wrong witht he present system, don't fix it if not broken.

  9. Hi Mary,

    thank you for your perspective, I do appreciate you informing on the discussion. Respectfully, however, I beg to differ that, "There is nothing wrong with the present system". If things were going so swimmingly as you posted, then why have I heard nothing but complaints from parents and students for nearly 9 years about the ten minute eating period? Why do so many of our children return home from school with half eaten or barely eaten lunches? What should we say to them when they tell us that after hand washing (note our daughters grade 1 teacher did not begin them early), retrieving their lunch kits from their backpacks, they had ten or less minutes to eat? When our normally happy-go-lucky kids are irritable and emotional after school, should we put it down to something other than the fact that they are riffling through our pockets for any food we might have brought with us?

    Should we, for instance, suggest that they hurry up and eat during their lunch break (I have such a hard time calling this a break)? I think that's already being done and not by adult supervisors who are doing the very best job ( in my opinion) with what I and others believe and have proven to be an inadequate eating period. Older student monitors deserve a break just as much as the younger ones and it's no surprise that they sometimes or even often rush the kids through eating. The very fact that schools offer instruction minutes ahead of the lunch bell, alternate locations and permission to take food outside is a clear indictment that the system isn't working for our students and for us as parents.

    As for funding, well, I have this to say. Funding has increased in the last ten years but less and less of it is being directed to the needs of children and our children are feeling the brunt of in so many ways. Ten years ago, most school districts had an hour for lunch. Eat first, take the time you need and go outside and play was the norm. Now, it's hurry up and eat and get outside, if you need more time, eat while playing or pack up your stuff, grab your coat and boots and go into another room to finish and lose play time. We had less funding per capita ten years ago than we do now, so please explain to me how it is that this is "costly" and nothing more than a, "ocean…made from a paddle (puddle?) of water". Children (not just my own) return home hungry, ravenous for food and eat well into the dinner hour. When dinner is put on the table, they are no longer hungry. Come bedtime, children are hungry again. It is a vicious cycle.

    I'm not sure if you have children and if you do if they are fully grown now and I'm not certain if you taught when our children had an hour for lunch but if you did, you surely should note the difference in the behaviour of your students then and now in the afternoon when their glucose levels plummet. It is proven through research and science that children's glucose levels drop dramatically in the afternoon when they have not had time to eat a sufficient amount of food. It is proven that pedagogical and health outcomes of students improves (conversely so too would staff's health outcomes and productivity) when children are given a lunch break with sufficient time to eat and play. It is also proven that children need a 20 minute eating period (this includes exclusively hand to mouth and no other tasks). Are you suggesting that the science from the Centre for Disease Control on Child and Youth Development or the Journal of Child Nutrition or even the National Association of School Boards (which represents every single school district in the U.S.) does not inform this discussion?

  10. What evidence do you have, other than anecdotal, that shows the ineffectiveness of adding minutes to the current 15 minute (more like ten or less) eating period, or on the pedagogical or health outcomes for our children, your students? I'm sorry but I "trust" science and not anecdotal evidence. I have irrefutable evidence to prove the system we have isn't working for our children. Encouraging, cajoling or even forcing children to eat faster with a system that inadequately supports healthy eating cannot continue and using the funding excuse is simply not defensible. Yes, teachers, SEA's, Resource staff and staff cost money but as a parent of two children, I respectfully remind us all that children's basic needs must be reflected in our plicies
    Queen Elizabeth manages to provide an hour long lunch period, then it is entirely possible and I would submit necessary to increase the eating time (not reduce the play time) for our students. I note that Queen E also has a 15 minute eating period and 45 minutes in play, however, that they have an hour for lunch shows us that this is not only possible but that it is feasible to provide children with a more adequate eating time.

    I also have to disagree with you on your statement that all kids finish within ten minutes. Scientific studies show that 51% of students finish their food within 7 to 10 minutes (again, this does not include hand washing, opening packages, socializing [which was determined to be a necessary educational exercise while eating], disposal of garbage and putting on coats and boots). What does that leave us? The science shows us that 49% of children needed more time to eat and if anyone can defend ignoring 49% of the school student population, I would happily debate this with them.

  11. I was remiss in not posting a link to Action Schools BC (not sure if I can do that within my post) but here it is in case I can.

    It outlines a play first, eat last, schedule dubbed "reverse lunch", that, should it be adopted would cost us nothing to implement. It's a matter of whether or not there is support at the teacher, administrator and Superintendent level that will determine if this is a solution to the acknowledged problem of the lunch routine. There are cost effective and mutually beneficial (teacher-student-parent-administrator-Superintendent) models we can work with if we all work together. Note: the lunch schedule template offers an hour to eat and play with ten minutes of that hour devoted to silent reading/music appreciation while finishing one's lunch.

  12. I was reading through the various comments and was going to add my 0.02 when at the very end I see MaryAnn making the point I was going to make. I taught intermediate aged students for 10+ years before making the move to high school. About four years ago, as a staff, we decided to make a change to the "reverse lunch" option outlined above. We found that students were much more focused on eating when they had already played and worked up their appetites.

  13. I wonder if MaryAnn Mortensen has stopped to ask the children (other than her own) what they need. I'm quite certain there are other children like my son who complain of being bored with nothing to do while the "slow eaters" (his words) finish eating. I don't agree with changing the entire system if it is only going to benefit a small percentage of the students. Sorry, but extending eating time to 30 minutes might make a few students (and their parents) happy, but it will likely leave a whole bunch more, miserable and bored. I wouldn't want to have to be the supervisor responsible for having to keep the finished kids busy and out of trouble while a small minority of the class finishes up.

  14. Maybe the district could do another survey and ask all the children again what they want?

  15. I highly doubt that my child is in the minority but since you asked, I did ask other children what they would want to see happen and what they asked for may or may not surprise you. They asked to be able to play first and eat after play. They asked for more time to eat and more time to play.

    For the record, I would not welcome a system that forced children to stay inside while other slower eaters finished their food. My preference would be a system that afforded all children a reasonable time to wash up, retrieve their lunch bags, settle down to eat, socialize, clean up and put away their lunch bags and get ready (coats and boots) to go outside. If I were only concerned for my child's sake, I would have simply taken her home each day as I have that ability. I would not have spent the better part of two years researching this and discussing it in what would be my free time as I volunteer as a District Parent Advisory Council Vice-chair. I am concerned for all children in New Westminster and across B.C. and I see this as an important stepping stone in providing proper nutrition to our children.

    As for my child, she is not slow eater or lallygagger, she actually knuckles down to eat her lunch and limits her chatting – this at least according to her former Principal and the child lunch monitors who supervised her classroom last year.

    Studies clearly show that 51% of children finish eating (exclusively the act of food to mouth) on average in 9 minutes and 49% of children needed more time than this with a standard deviation of 5-7 minutes. Again, this does not include time necessary for hand washing and opening packages or socialization which has been determined to be a necessary learning experience children should engage in outside of playing outside. The study is from the Journal of Child Nutrition and Management by Ethan A. Bergman among other scholars/doctors. It's easy to Google if you would like to read it for yourself.

    Every child should be encouraged but not forced to eat mindfully – cramming food in their mouths is hardly a healthy life habit and is a contributing factor to obesity whether while one is young or later in life. I wholeheartedly agree that no child should be forced to wait but with the current system, I have a hard time believing any child is "waiting" for slow eaters since neither typical nor slow eaters are reasonably accommodated in our schools except where teachers use instruction time to begin their students eating lunch early.

    I note that none of our elected officials nor senior management has acknowledged the use of instruction time publicly – only on paper during meetings and in discussions. I rather suspect this is because they recognize that this is considered a "no-no" and wish to avoid the questions associated with this. Many primary grade teachers begin their students 5 to 10 minutes before the lunch bell to allow their students time to wash their hands (described as "education" at 185 days per year) and to begin eating early. What's the big deal? Just ten extra minutes per day amounts to a week and a half of lost instruction time. Some teachers in the school our daughter attended last year were offering their students 15 minutes before the lunch bell. As a parent, I'm thankful for their thoughtful consideration of the need for children to have sufficient time to eat. As a taxpayer, I consider the fact that using instruction time and "alternate" eating areas in the schools as clear indications of a system that is not working. Change is needed and the time is now.

  16. Not sure if this is still a point of discussion, but I think my kid gets 20 minutes for lunch now…I assume with play time on top of that. He definitely comes home with uneaten lunch…not sure if this is an issue with the lunch time allotted, he can and will be a slow-poke at meals. I think he will have to learn to get down to business when it comes to lunch time.

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