New West kids deserve fair lunch policy for all

Lunch standards vary significantly from school to school in New West, as shown in this page from the Superintendent's report on the subject.
Lunch standards vary significantly from school to school in New West, as shown in this page from the Superintendent’s report on the subject.

The children in my daughter’s kindergarten class, like most in the district, are given 15 minutes to eat their lunches before they are sent outside to play. But it’s not really 15 minutes to eat.

That 15 minutes includes two dozen children lining up and washing hands at a single sink in the class. It includes the time to file into the cloakroom to fetch their lunch kits. It also includes the time to clean up their desks and put their lunch kits away. Talking and socializing are necessarily forbidden.

Two-term school trustee Maryann Mortensen has been calling attention to the problems with this approach for more than four years, without much support from the school board. The board will be discussing the lunch question again at the next board meeting on June 16, and I will be profoundly disappointed and frustrated if trustees decide to continue stonewalling Mortensen in her quest to provide New Westminster’s children with a reasonable amount of time to eat.

According to Superintendent John Gaiptman, adding a few more minutes for lunch will not affect the amount of time kids have in class, or cost more money. It will be a minor inconvenience for the adults to adjust, but those few minutes will allow kids a few more bites – maybe even enough to finish what’s in their lunchbox before heading outside to play.

When I first heard about the lunch complaint, I didn’t take it that seriously. I also had 15 minutes to eat as a child, and I turned out fine. But what I didn’t realize is that new rules about hand-washing mean that it isn’t 15 minutes for eating – it can be a lot less. When my daughter is one of the first in line to wash hands, she manages to wolf down most of the lunch I pack, but when she is the last person to wash hands she frequently runs out of time. Her next opportunity to eat is after school, when we arrive home almost three hours later. Too often she comes home starving and cranky, and I have to wonder how well she was able to pay attention in class after eating so little.

My son is a few grades ahead, and he has learned to eat alarmingly quickly. Before he entered kindergarten, our snack times always included a variety of fruits and vegetables, so I couldn’t understand why the carrots and cucumbers I sent always came back uneaten. After a while, I came to realize it was because they simply took too much time to chew.

When I have talked about this with the teachers at school, they have said that they accommodate children who need more time by allowing them to finish their lunches in the Learning Centre instead of going out to play. There are two problems with this. The first is that most children are also starved of free play time in school, and will not willingly give it up. The second is that the Learning Centre is also where children are often sent for discipline when they are being disruptive in class. It is a place many kids associate with punishment.

In New Westminster, the approach to lunch varies not only from school to school, but also from teacher to teacher, and even day by day. I hear from friends in Montessori at McBride Elementary that some teachers there allow children to snack on food from their lunch kits in class as long as it is not interfering with teaching time (such as when a child is done their work early, or during rest/free play times). I have heard other parents say their children’s teachers have come up with strategies to provide more time, such as starting hand-washing before the bell, or allowing some children to go wash hands in the bathroom if they are lucky enough to have a classroom close by.

While I applaud these teachers for coming up with ways to provide more time to eat, the fact that they have to do so just illustrates the point that children are simply not given enough time to eat. As adults, we would not stand to have so little time, and I think it is appalling that the district has been unwilling to ensure that children have adequate time to eat a healthy meal.

Meals ought to be more than pit stops to refuel as fast as possible. Mealtimes are a welcome respite from the busyness of the day, and when we are lucky enough to share a meal with others, it should be a social occasion.

But that’s not what our kids are learning in school. Instead, the lunch monitors (children themselves) punish kids for talking to each other. In my son’s class, the lunch monitors take away play time for kids caught talking, by keeping them inside for a few minutes after everyone else has left, and have even “punished” the class for socializing by making them do math equations (there’s a whole other rant about children seeing math as punishment, but I will leave that for another day).

Hungry children have more trouble paying attention, are more likely to act out and are simply less able to learn. I am troubled that we are encouraging children to eat so quickly (a very unhealthy habit) and to put so little value on mealtimes. I hope for our kids’ sake that our trustees will give this question the attention that it deserves, and create standards that ensure every child in the district has enough time to eat.