Federal law specifies school nutrition standards, but there is no national standard on how much time kids get to eat lunch. (iStock)

The scene was the same every day at Deb Shell’s house in Berkeley, Calif. She would send her three children to elementary school with packed lunches, and they would come home with their lunch bags almost completely full. Shell started talking to other parents and learned that the Berkeley Unified School District had cut lunchtime at some schools to add additional instructional minutes to the classroom. Many kids were going through the day hungry.

When Shell and other parents went to observe lunch, they saw that the problem was even worse for students who had to stand in line for their meals. The students are supposed to have 20 minutes to eat, but they often have only 15, Shell said. “We heard the [ending] lunch bell ring, and there were still 18 kids outside who hadn’t been served,” she said. “They got their food and dumped it right in the trash and were dismissed for recess. It was heart-wrenching to watch elementary-aged kids not eat and infuriating to see the food wasted.”

In June, Shell started a petition on Change.org to get lunchtime extended at her kids’ school. Since then, she has collected more than 1,300 signatures.

Berkeley is one of the only school districts in the country to institute a comprehensive garden and cooking program, thanks in part to the advocacy efforts of food activist and chef Alice Waters. But in a district where students grow their own “weedos,” a wrap made of herbs and vegetables, many of them do not have time to eat them.

“It’s becoming a stressful, almost traumatic experience when kids go into the lunchroom,” said Angela McKee-Brown, director of education for the Edible Schoolyard Project, a nonprofit founded by Waters that works with more than 5,500 garden and education programs worldwide. “When you think about it, the cafeteria is the one place that kids of all backgrounds and abilities get to be in community with each other.”

Berkeley students spend a good deal of time learning where food comes from, but lunch appears to be teaching them more about fast food — or at least quickly consumed food — than anything else. “We’re investing all this time and resources about the beautiful nature of food, and you go into the cafeteria and you’re constrained by time,” McKee-Brown said.

Superintendent Brent Stephens declined to comment on the lunch issues in the district, other than to say that administrators plan to work this fall to understand what can be done to improve the experience for students. Bonnie Christensen, the district’s director of nutrition services, confirmed that food is being wasted since the district added instructional minutes and shortened some schools’ lunch periods.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was a signature initiative of former first lady Michelle Obama, and the program made school lunches healthier than the corn dogs and tater tots of a generation ago. School meals must be lower in fat and salt, contain lean protein, and offer fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Lunches also have requirements about the minimum and maximum number of calories, but there is no national standard on how much time kids get to eat that meal. Instead, it is left to the discretion of local districts.

But the length of the school lunch period is a key factor in how much nutrition children actually get, said Juliana Cohen, assistant professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Merrimack College. Her research shows that students who get less than 20 minutes for lunch consume significantly less of their meal than children who have more time. At Berkeley, getting through the line takes so long that some students have just four minutes to eat their entire lunch.

Often, the time restrictions hit the neediest kids hardest, Cohen said. “Low-income children rely on school meals for half their daily energy intake,” she said.

The Trump administration’s recent proposal to cut 3 million people from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program would probably make it even more difficult for poor children to get enough food, Cohen said. “With vulnerable children potentially losing SNAP benefits, they will likely need to rely even more on school meals,” she said. “It is even more important that these children have sufficient time to eat.”

The SNAP cuts could also mean that 500,000 kids could lose automatic eligibility for free lunches, House Democrats have warned.

Parents who can afford it sometimes spare their children long waits in lunch lines by packing food for them. But brown-bag lunches are often filled with more snacks and junk food than what is offered by meal programs, Cohen said. And research shows that children who eat healthier foods learn better and have fewer disciplinary issues, she said.

Last year, the federal government spent $13.8 billion on free, reduced-price and full price lunches, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA does not regulate the time for lunch, but spokesman Jack Currie said that “the regulations do encourage local entities to set meal periods that provide adequate time for both the meal to be served and for students to consume meals, to increase the adequacy of student intakes and minimize plate waste.”

For now, it is up to districts to set how much time students get for lunch. Parents who are pushing for longer lunch periods often hear that there just are not enough minutes in the day, said Christine Davis, founder of Arizonans for Recess and School Wellness.

Each state has its own requirements for the number of hours kids need to be in school. But rigid schedules that minimize recess and lunchtime often happen because of the pressure of district-chosen curriculums aimed at raising test scores, Davis said.

“In my experience, schools will declare the [curriculum] recommendations are mandates and claim there is no time for lunch,” she said.

Many nutritionists, doctors and parents want a federal standard for lunch periods in place. The American Academy of Pediatrics is pushing for at least 20 minutes of seated eating time, not including the time it takes for students to wash their hands, walk to the cafeteria and get their food, said Robert Murray, a spokesman for the APA. There is no way for kids to get enough nutrition for the day in less than 20 minutes, and it’s the children who most need the food that are really hurting, Murray said. “It’s really important for these kids to eat the whole meal.”

Too-short meal times teach children to wolf down their food, potentially creating lifelong bad habits, he added. Kids who are being rushed at lunch are not just missing out on important calories, but also aren’t learning about how fun it can be to sit and share a meal, Murray said. “Lunchtime is really about the social enjoyment of being with their friends,” he said. “Hopefully kids learn sharing and exploring new foods.”

Amy Ulrich, a parent in Bellevue, Wash., successfully lobbied her local district to increase lunchtime from 20 to 25 minutes a few years ago.

She submitted a resolution to the National Parent Teacher Association, which she hopes will address school lunchtime at its June 2020 convention. “The PTA exists as a child welfare organization, and they should have a position on it,” Ulrich said.

The backing of the national PTA, she said, would help parents push for better standards at the local level. “Oddly enough,” she said, “something so simple as school lunch is one of the hardest things to change in schools.”

Amy Ettinger is the author of Sweet Spot: An Ice Cream Binge Across America (Dutton, 2017).