School lunchtime too short, state auditor says. It’s hurting kids’ health

A state report released Wednesday revealed most schools across Washington did not provide students the recommended minimum lunchtime of 20 minutes, resulting in students having less time to eat and choose better foods.

The state and federal government spent nearly $240 million on childhood nutrition programs in 2017 and 2018, but the Washington State Auditor’s Office said giving students more time is key.

Only one of the 31 schools observed from November to February by state auditors provided the necessary 20 minutes for students, the state concluded.

The schools observed included five in Pierce County: Carson Elementary, Columbia Crest Academy, Graham-Kapowsin High, Purdy Elementary and Thompson Elementary.

Washington law stipulates students should have enough time to enjoy a complete meal. Most schools follow the recommended 20-minute minimum lunch time, but students lose a portion of that time walking to the cafeteria, finding a seat and waiting in line.

The ideal lunchtime starts the 20-minute clock when the last student sits down to eat, according to the auditor’s office.

The lack of time has students choosing fries and pizza over healthier options, the report found. One University of Michigan study found that when students are given more time to eat, they make more thoughtful decisions and try a variety of foods.

Auditors found administrators had a misconception of the amount of time kids had to eat.

“About half of principals interviewed who allocate less than 20 minutes of seat time believe students already have enough time to eat,” the report said.

School staff told auditors reasons students have a tight lunchtime include overcrowding, too few supervisory staff, insufficient funds and even no cafeteria.

The state auditor’s office also suggests schools have recess before lunch, citing successful switches in California and Montana. Having children exercise before eating leads to better food choices, less wasted food, and better behavior, according to the report. Children feel less pressure to hurry out to the playground, tend to have fewer disciplinary referrals and complain less of stomach discomfort when recess is before lunch.

State Superintendent Chris Reykdal agreed to move forward by better defining a 20-minute lunchtime and requiring recess before lunch for elementary students.

Josephine Peterson covers Pierce County and Puyallup for The News Tribune and The Puyallup Herald. She previously worked at The News Journal in Delaware as the crime reporter and interned at The Washington Post.