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Seattle Students Don't Get Enough Time To Eat, Study Finds

Corin Mochnick
Corin Mochnick, who has two children in Seattle Public Schools, took this picture of the barely-touched lunch her second-grader brought home.

Elementary students in Seattle Public Schools get far less time to eat lunch than district policy requires, according to a study by University of Washington graduate students. That confirms what parent activists have long reported.

Researchers found that none of the seven elementary schools they visited gave students the required 20 minutes of eating time. Instead, the average time to eat was just 13 minutes.

The study also showed that the less time kids had to eat, the less they ate. At the school with the longest seated lunch time, Concord International Elementary School in South Park, kids got 18 minutes to eat, and consumed about half of their lunches on average.

At Hawthorne Elementary School in Columbia City, kids averaged eight minutes to eat, and threw out more than three-quarters of their lunches.

When the researchers analyzed students' food waste, they found that kids ate the least nutritious food first, and threw out their fruits, vegetables, entrees and milk if they didn’t have enough time to finish. 

Without a nutritious meal it’s harder for students to learn. Compounding the problem, lunchroom managers reported less time to eat at schools with more low-income students, where more students are likely to depend on the hot lunch they receive at school as a primary source of nutrition - and where students tend to fall behind their wealthier peers academically.

The UW's School of Public Health conducted the study at the request of a school district wellness task force. Seattle Schools did not have immediate comment about the study’s findings. A spokeswoman said the district's nutrition services director position is currently vacant.

Seattle parents formed a group on Facebook last year calling for the district to enforce its lunch time policy. The Lunch & Recess Matter group includes many parents who say their children return home ravenous after not having had enough time to eat lunch or with sack lunches virtually untouched.

Many principals told the researchers that they can’t extend lunch time without cutting into state-mandated instructional time.

The study’s authors offered recommendations like moving recess before lunch -- giving students more time to get to the cafeteria -- and encouraging healthy eating habits.

Year started with KUOW: 2008