Pretend for a moment that you are an innovative Food Services Director determined to offer both healthful and delicious options to students. Your cafeteria staff has attended Orfalea’s SFI Culinary Boot Camp and is excited to make the transition to scratch cooking using fresh, unprocessed ingredients. Recipes are tested, perfected and finally ready for the first day of school. The lunch bell rings and its show time! Just walking in, kids notice something is different. What is it, anyway? Perhaps the smell of real cooking – an aroma of roasted chicken with herbs, roasted carrots, and potato wedges fills the cafeteria.

If the school’s population is moderate and the cafeteria staffing sufficient, students might actually have enough time to sit and enjoy the meal. Far too often this is not the case. Long lines and overwhelmed staff can eat up what little time many schools allocate for lunch. The Orfalea Foundation has recently partnered with California Food Policy Advocates to explore what we call the “time to eat” issue. Below is a CFPA report addressing various factors relating to this issue.

Do California Students Have Enough Time to Eat?

by Tracey Patterson, MPH/Nutrition Policy Advocate, CFPA

Thanks to school nutrition advocates, many students are returning from summer vacation to find healthier meals and snacks on campus. But offering nutritious food doesn’t make a difference if students don’t have enough time to eat!  Recent media coverage explored whether California students have enough time to eat school meals. 

Some schools may have lunch periods that are just too short.  A commonly recommended standard is giving students at least 20 minutes to eat after they’ve gotten their food.  Beyond the length of lunch periods, there may be other factors affecting students’ time to eat, such as:

  • Crowded lunch periods with too many students to serve at once
  • Outdated facilities that can’t serve students quickly enough
  • Inadequate staffing or points of service for school meals
  • Scheduling recess after lunch so students rush through their meals in order to play
  • School activities that conflict with lunch, such as disciplinary action, club meetings, tutoring, etc.

CFPA is committed to better understanding the factors that affect students’ participation in school meal programs, including having enough time to eat. Work is underway to assess (1) students’ perceptions of school meals and school meal periods, (2) the length and characteristics of school lunch periods, and (3) the effect that time to eat may have on students’ dietary intake.

We welcome input from all stakeholders on this issue. Do students in your community have enough time to eat during the school day? Please contact Tracey Patterson at tracey@cfpa.net or 510.433.1122 ext. 101 to share your thoughts.

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