Oak Valley Elementary School Principal Rob Bergan and fifth graders.

By Dean Zatkowsky

“You wouldn’t eat a big meal and then go straight to the gym, would you?”

I thought it was a trick question; that she was trying to get me to admit that I never go to the gym. But even a sedentary oaf like me knows the correct answer: “Of course not.” It’s common sense.

In the School Food Initiative’s mission to improve children’s health, however, the bigger question is this: Why would you schedule lunch in a way that encourages children to skip eating? Because that’s exactly what happens at most schools, as students rush through a few bites of food, toss the rest, and race to the playground for a little taste of freedom.

School Outreach Manager Tricia Godfrey and I were on our way to Oak Valley Elementary School in Buellton, California, to interview students, teachers, and the principal about their recent conversion to Recess Before Lunch (RBL). The RBL concept is gaining ground nationwide because children who are not bursting to escape to recess are more likely to eat properly.

Principal Rob Bergan met us in the office, and chatted as we walked out toward the school garden. “It came from the Wellness Committee: a parent brought up the idea of recess before lunch, and I’d never heard of recess before lunch, except that I had done it in the past at an impacted school where we just didn’t have room on the playground. It was an easy flip with the schedule here, so I thought, ‘why not try it?’ Think about it; do we eat a big meal and then go out to do something gnarly?”

There it was; the trick question again. Despite my aversion to gnarly activities, I was ready.

“Of course not.”

But Principal Bergan was quick to point out that time to eat properly was the real benefit of the experiment. “The Director of Maintenance told me there was less trash; less waste, and that means more food is getting eaten. Kids running to recess don’t eat. Now there are fewer unopened milk cartons – when they eat first, unopened milk cartons get dumped, but now we make them take a relaxed twenty minute block to eat, and while they’re not liking that so much yet, they’re adapting and they’re consuming the milk and the food.”

Fifth graders in the school garden. Recess before Lunch is just one component of a nationwide movement to improve children's health by improving their relationship to food.

Trying Something New in a Complex Environment

Shortly after the Wellness Committee recommended Recess Before Lunch, Principal Bergan attended a meeting of the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA), and met an administrator from Oxnard who said that RBL was the single biggest change that improved her school’s student test scores.

Bergan spoke to then District Superintendent Tom Cooper and decided to try it. “We could have done a better job building consensus before messing with tradition, but based on my teachers’ contract, I only get one meeting a month for thirty minutes, so I share the information and then I have to act. If I wait for consensus, we’ll never try anything.

“We just went for it, and having read the literature about building consensus, we probably should have moved more slowly, but we constantly had kids coming into the nurse’s office at the end of recess, or to my office to resolve conflicts. As an advocate for the kids, I pay attention to best practices in this field and try to lead my team toward those best practices. I know it’s made sense in my office, in that we have far fewer playground conflicts, and I took into account the experiences of my colleagues who have made this change at their schools.”

Has he seen any immediate effects? “As I said, we were constantly having kids coming in to the nurse’s office at the end of recess, or to my office to resolve conflicts. But now, they just go to lunch rather than to administrative limbo.”

Another benefit cited by Principal Bergan was the preservation of teaching time. “Because we cannot accommodate all of the children at once, we stagger their lunch start times. They used to come from the classroom, but now they get staggered to lunch from the playground, so there’s no loss of class time.”

Another big benefit appears after lunch. “Former fourth grade teacher Audrey Rohwedder told me the kids come in and they’re not sweaty and they’re calmer. They have a chance to go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, and get back to class. With this system, the kids get a calm time to eat and socialize. It’s a bit of a challenge to get them to slow down, because they’re used to eating fast or skipping food to get out and play. But they’re getting used to it.”

Teacher Lynne Vargas sees things a little differently: “As a teacher, I polled my kids and 21 out of 22 fifth graders prefer eating before recess. Fifth graders are hungry. And a lot of them would rather stay in the classroom than go to recess.” I asked if she saw any benefits in the classroom after lunch.  “No, it’s been the same.”

Ms. Vargas’s student Markus agreed. “Mr. Bergan changed the rule because he wanted the kids to not be so hyper when they return to class, but I’m not sure if it’s working. Now we go to recess first and then we’re so hungry.”

Orfalea Foundation School Food Initiative Director Kathleen de Chadenèdes notes that the fifth grader’s concern is an important consideration. “A lot of schools just flip the schedule to try Recess Before Lunch, and I applaud them for taking action, but it’s a little more complicated than that. To make it work for the whole school, you really have to change the whole schedule to offer recess and lunch earlier. That often means moving one period from the morning to the afternoon. It sounds easy, but there are a lot of moving parts in a school schedule.”

Some fifth graders weighed in:

Anahy: “I’m used to eating lunch first, so I get a little hungry.”

Ingrid: “Now I have time to go to the bathroom and get a drink.”

Dallia: “I kind of do notice a difference, because I have time to go to the bathroom.”

Davis:  “I like how it is now, because now we can relax; I used to sometimes get a stomach ache.”

Rebecca: “I think that when you have recess before lunch, some kids want to get their energy out and that’s a really good idea, and if you eat later you won’t get a stomach ache from playing. It’s usually fun to play first, but I like eating first too, so it’s even.”

Clearly, even seemingly simple changes in a public school have pros and cons, and carry all sorts of unintended consequences. According to Principal Bergan, “The biggest parental concern we’ve had to deal with is hand-washing, so we put these hand sanitizers on pillars all around the lunch area.”

At the Orfalea Foundation’s School Food Initiative, we support Recess Before Lunch as a key element for creating a culture of health in kids’ schools and in their lives. Food literacy includes understanding the role of food in our health, mood, and energy level, and RBL ensures that kids have time to eat a proper lunch in a more relaxed atmosphere. And besides, would you run to the gym right after a big meal? (Hint: NO!) The concept seems logical enough to me, but as with many things in life and business, execution does not always go as smoothly as we would like.

Principal Rob Bergan and the teachers, staff, and students of Oak Valley Elementary School may face a few more obstacles along the way, but we think they are headed in the right direction. “When I was doing the research, it was clear that the younger kids would be easier, and the older kids would cling to tradition,” say Bergan, “but I reviewed the medical data and studied the best practices (like in Montana). I initiated it way too fast, but I have a feeling that if I had dragged it out, it probably still would have been an issue. There used to be a lot of dialogue but little change. I come from a business background and when I encounter a good idea, I want to try it and evaluate it and adapt it. And you know; people will fixate on the few things that aren’t working and miss the successes completely.”

He adds, “There’s less wasted food and less trash on the playground. Kids are eating more because they have time to eat. They return to class calmer and ready to learn. Change isn’t easy, but this change is worth it.”

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