While many school guidelines are set on the federal level, the way school administrators implement them can vary tremendously from place to place. One example of this is school lunch schedules.
According to the National School Lunch program, “Schools must offer lunches between 10AM and 2PM.” But schools may request an exemption from these times and start lunch times even earlier. In fact, some schools around the country start their lunch periods at 9 AM.
Why have so many students found themselves in this strange situation? What effect does an early lunch have on kids, and what can parents do about it?
Rise and Shine—and Eat
First, to be clear: when a school says its lunch periods start at 9 AM, it’s not saying their entire student body heads down to the cafeteria at 9 AM to eat. During a lunch period, schools rotate classes of students to eat at different periods. Some students may start their lunch at 9 AM, but others will start later, and it’s all the luck of the draw.
In situations where schools are pushing the start of their lunch period to the beginning of the day, it’s typically a symptom of a larger logistical problem. The school has too many students, and they can only fit so many of them into the cafeteria at once. To resolve the problem, they extend the lunch period, so there’s more time to rotate children through.
Because this is a logistical issue, an early lunch often isn’t the only problem kids face. To rotate more kids through the lunchroom more quickly, many principals may also shorten the amount of time each group of children spends in the lunchroom. As a result, kids may not have the time they need to eat.
Early Lunches, Learning, and Health
Unfortunately, while many principals may view an early lunch as a necessity, it can have a powerful, negative effect on children.
First, children with early lunch periods tend to eat less. In one study, children with lunches around noon ate 6 percent more than children who ate early lunches, and 14 percent more than children who ate late lunches. While that may not seem like much, it’s a statistically significant amount, which doesn’t necessarily correlate to a student’s hunger.
Students also eat less when they have shorter lunches. The same research said that when students have less than 20 minutes to eat, they consume significantly less of their entree, vegetables, and milk.
While eating less may seem like a good thing in light of news about obesity rates, it’s not. Children need healthy lunch food—at the right time and with the right amount of time to eat—in order to succeed in school. For children who live in food-insecure households, a school lunch may be the only opportunity they have to eat a balanced meal.
Children need to eat every three to four hours on average. If they don’t eat on that schedule—and kids with very early lunches don’t—they risk becoming physically sick or emotionally distressed, and their concentration may falter during classes. Plus, students who are hungry later in the day are more likely to make up for the difference with unhealthy snacks such as processed or salty food from a vending machine.
Unfortunately, because this is a logistical problem, it’s hard for parents to address. If a parent finds out their child has a very early lunch, they may not be able to move the lunch period or receive special accommodations, because this is an issue that potentially affects large groups of children. So long as schools continue to face these logistical problems, they will often continue to push lunches earlier, with troubling effects on students. However, it may be helpful to bring these facts about the consequences of extremely early lunches to school personnel in hopes of finding solutions.
If your child must eat lunch at an unusually early or late time period, or is not given enough time to eat lunch, it may be affecting his or her ability to learn and do well in school. An unreasonably early school lunch schedule may be just one of many challenges your child faces in school. If so, you may want to consider other school alternatives such as online learning at home. Learning from home offers students more flexibility in their day in a comfortable learning environment. Visit K12.com to find a virtual school in your state and discover the benefits of online learning.