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News & Action Items: Nutrition & Legislative

Fast Food in Schools?

Wednesday, March 9, 2016  

by Heather Torrey, MS,RD, SN Director, Georgetown
SNA of Mass. Legislative/Nutrition Committee Member

The title of this article may elicit thoughts of chain restaurants taking over school cafeterias. However, districts across the state are facing a different reality: less time for meal service during lunch.  In recent years, there has been a heavy focus on improving the nutritional quality of meals served in schools and has resulted in great strides in school nutrition programs nationwide. Conversely, there have been no federal or state recommendations on minimum meal period times. As a result, many school nutrition programs are working hard to feed students nourishing meals in a shorter amount of time, in a sense making school cafeterias the new face of “fast food”.

Many busy professionals are all too familiar with a rushed or working lunch period, but why does this present a special issue for students? For many students, lunch time is the most anticipated time of the school day. It is a time when students can socialize, unwind and enjoy their lunches among friends. That time, according to the School Nutrition Association’s State of School Nutrition 2014, is about a half an hour nationwide with a median of 25 minutes for elementary schools and 30 minutes for middle and high schools. Actual time for students to eat can be significantly reduced once the time spent walking to the cafeteria, waiting in line, and finding a seat are taken into account. A recent study published by the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics explored the impacts of lunch period duration on consumption of meal components in Massachusetts school districts. The study, a collaboration between the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and the non-profit organization Project Bread, found that many students have lunch period of 20 minutes or less which does not allow enough time for students to eat. 

Students and staff members surveyed in this study reported that they felt meal periods were oftentimes rushed and that there was not enough time for students to eat, but how did that translate to actual consumption? Researchers observed the meal selection and consumption of 1,001 K-8 grade students from 6 schools in a low-income, urban school district in Massachusetts. They found that students with less than 20 minutes to eat lunch consumed 13 percent less of their entrées, 12 percent less of their vegetables, and 10 percent less of their milk than students who had at least 25 minutes to eat. The study also showed that students with less time to eat were also significantly less likely to select a fruit with their meal than those who had more time to eat (44 percent versus 57 percent). 

The nutrition implications of these findings are numerous. Not only are students losing out on the health-promoting vitamins, minerals and fiber of the foods they are eating less of, they are also inadvertently being taught to eat too quickly. Eating meals too quickly can interfere with the body’s natural ability to sense when it has had enough food and can lead to overeating; a cycle that can carry into adulthood and lead to obesity. One might argue that students who feel they do not have enough time to eat a school meal ought to bring their own meal from home. However, studies have also shown that meals brought from home are often less nutritious and contain fewer fresh fruits and vegetables than meals provided through the National School Lunch Program. 
Many school nutrition directors are already taking steps to improve the speed of service to maximize the time students have to enjoy their meals. Some strategies that can help may include offering sliced fruits instead of whole fruits, adding serving and/or check-out lines, and increasing cafeteria staff to ensure students are focused on eating. While the concern about classroom time is a major factor, school administrators may want to consider extending meal service if possible. 
The challenge of scheduling adequate meal time is just one of many that school administrators face. However, it is clear that for the health of our students, this is a problem that requires a coordinated effort to resolve. School nutrition personnel and district administrators must collaborate to identify strategies to allow students the appropriate time to enjoy their meals. To relate this issue to one seen around finals-time, we do not encourage students to cram for their exams. We should also discourage them from cramming lunch into too short a period of time!

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