According to federal rules of the National School Lunch program, kids at school are supposed to be served lunch between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. If you are thinking that 10 a.m. sounds early, consider this: At some schools, kids are served lunch at 9 a.m., and at least one New York City school, lunch starts at 8:58 a.m.

New York, which has the largest school district in the country, is not the only place with lunch timing problems, but it is the place where Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) just vowed to try to change it.

That happened after the Daily News reported that its analysis of city records found that a “stunning 908 city schools start serving lunch before 11 a.m. — thanks to a shortage of cafeteria space and questionable decision-making by principals.” And it said the data was “nearly identical” to a report five years ago by the News and WNYC.

This comes from the website of the Office of Food and Nutrition Services in the New York City Department of Education:

(l) Requirements for lunch periods—(1) Timing. Schools must offer lunches meeting the requirements of this section during the period the school has designated as the lunch period. Schools must offer lunches between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Schools may request an exemption from these times from the State agency. With State agency approval, schools may serve lunches to children under age 5 over two service periods. Schools may divide quantities and food items offered each time any way they wish.
(2) Adequate lunch periods. FNS encourages schools to provide sufficient lunch periods that are long enough to give all students adequate time to be served and to eat their lunches.

In California, the state code allows lunch to be served to students as early as 10 a.m.:

7 CFR Section 210.10(f)(1) states that schools must offer lunches during the period the school has designated as the lunch period. Schools must offer lunches between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.

That, it turns out, is not the only problem many kids have with lunchtime at school. Plenty don’t get a whole lot of time to eat breakfast or lunch.

A 2013 poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health found that 20 percent of parents of students from kindergarten through fifth grade said their child gets 15 minutes or less to eat — and there’s no reason to think much has changed for the better in this regard.

Is there a consequence to early lunches and little time to consume food? Of course.

Short lunch periods are a concern for all students – especially millions of food-insecure children who depend on school meal programs as a primary source of key nutrients. Research demonstrates that school breakfast and lunch programs support obesity prevention, student health and academic achievement. Schools must ensure students have adequate time to consume these meals.

Education Week reported on a 2017 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which compared 1,000 fourth- and fifth-grade students with the earliest, latest and midday lunch periods.

In an eight-week analysis of more than 20,000 lunch trays, Juliana Cohen, a nutrition researcher at the Harvard University School of Public Health, and her colleagues found that students who had lunch periods near noon ate 6 percent more of their food than students who had early lunch periods, and 14 percent more food than students with late lunches. Students who had at least 25 minutes to eat from the time they sat down finished significantly more of their entrees, vegetables, and milk than did students who had less than 20 minutes to eat.
Besides wasting less food, Cohen has found in other studies that better lunch schedules could give students an academic boost.

This post looks at the problem so many kids face each school day.

It was written by Misha Valencia, a child therapist who specializes in trauma, and a writer whose work has appeared on numerous platforms, including the New York Times.

By Misha Valencia

It’s 8:58 a.m. and some kids in school are already starting to each lunch — less than an hour after the school day has begun for most children.

In many schools across the country, lunch period is now at breakfast time. While early lunch periods can adversely impact children from all different communities, this practice is more prevalent in low-income school districts.

Currently, 22 million children in the United States depend on school lunch assistance, and for many of these students lunch may be their primary meal for the day. Serving lunch so early leaves students potentially hungry and forced to go the rest of the school day without eating — which has a profound impact on a student’s ability to learn and their health.

In New York City, school lunchtimes can range anywhere from 8:58 a.m. through midafternoon. Early lunches happen in all districts, including wealthier neighborhoods, but a recent analysis of school lunchtimes in different Zip codes showed that children in lower-income areas were eating lunch earlier than those in higher-income neighborhoods. While the city has made strides in addressing hunger — all school meals are now free for everyone, but the timing of lunch periods continues to be a significant problem.

Principals typically determine school lunch schedules, but overcrowding and multiple schools co-locating in one building, with only one cafeteria and shared school lunch staff, are all factors that contribute to lunches being served earlier and earlier.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reports that school-age children need to eat every three to four hours. If school lunch is served at 9 a.m. and there is no other meal or snack provided in school, then students will go well past the recommended time without food.

Emily Skeen, a nurse in New York City with extensive experience treating at-risk children, said in an interview: “Many children in low-income neighborhoods do not have the means to buy something to eat later on in the day if they are hungry. They may not be going home after school to a meal waiting for them. There may be limited food at dinner. If they eat lunch at 9 a.m. and are not given anything to eat for the rest of the day, they are now going hours without enough food.”

The problem is nationwide with overcrowding/limited staffing forcing many school districts across the country to serve lunch earlier.

As far back as 2013, approximately 100 schools in Cincinnati were serving early lunches, some starting at 9:41 a.m. Meanwhile, South Carolina, Oregon and North Carolina have reported that overcrowding has caused schools to serve lunch early, prompting many parents and educators to worry about their children eating enough throughout the day.

Very early lunch periods directly impact a student’s health — with some children suffering from the physical and emotional effects of being hungry in class. Hunger can cause headaches, colds, stomachaches, chronic medical issues, stress, malnutrition and inability to concentrate. Hunger also impacts children academically. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that hunger is connected to lower grades, increased absenteeism, being held back a grade and difficulty focusing.

Sean Patrick Corcoran, an associate professor of economics and education policy at New York University, told the Atlantic in an article: “Students who eat regular, healthy meals are less likely to be tired, are more attentive in class, and retain more information.”

Early lunches also contribute to an increase in students consuming unhealthy foods. Students who have the means are more likely to buy salty/processed snacks in the vending machines after school or between classes, and this excess of salty foods can negatively affect their well-being.

Recent studies show that children are consuming sodium at dangerous levels. Almost 90 percent of the children studied surpassed the upper level of sodium recommended for their age group. And 1 in 9 children ages 8 to 17 has blood pressure above the normal range for their age — with 16 percent of the extra sodium in children’s diets reportedly coming from salty snacks.

The problem is further compounded by the Trump administration’s recent changes to school lunch requirements, which now allow increased levels of sodium (and sugar) in school meals.

The issue of early school lunches and the importance of children eating enough food throughout the day is compounded by increasingly shorter lunch periods. As many schools increase instruction time, they deal with overcrowding by staggering lunch periods for different groups of children, leaving some students without enough table time to eat the food in front of them. By the time they stand in line, get their food and sit down to eat, lunch is almost over.

A study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that students who have less than 20 minutes to eat their lunch ate 13 percent less of their entrees, 12 percent less of their vegetables and 10 percent less of their milk, compared with classmates who had a minimum of 25 minutes to eat lunch.

A 2013 poll by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, NPR and the Harvard School of Public Health found that 20 percent of parents of children in kindergarten through fifth grade reported that their child gets just 15 minutes (or less) to eat lunch. That means that students, especially kids where school lunch may be the only food they have to sustain them for the rest of the day, don’t even have enough time to eat it.

Many educators have advocated for schools to provide a healthy snack to help curb hunger throughout the day, provide children with nutrients and potentially mitigate issues of children not being able to concentrate due to hunger.

Eating school lunch extremely early can negatively impact a student’s health and their ability to focus in class. School districts, especially those in lower-income communities where students often rely heavily on school meals, need to ensure children have enough food throughout the day so they can focus on the lesson, not on being hungry.

It doesn’t matter how great an educator is or how interesting a class may be, if a child is hungry, they will not be able to concentrate and learn.