Washington schools not giving students enough time to eat lunch, report finds

OLYMPIA, Wash. - A new state audit reveals that many schools are not giving young students enough time to eat lunch.

State investigators visited and observed 31 elementary schools across Washington state in the 2018-2019 school year.

They are schools in urban and rural areas, and the report says the findings are broadly applicable to parents and school administrators across all 295 school districts in our state.

Every parent knows how hard it is to get kids to eat healthy all the time. That effort is also important in our schools, especially among elementary kids who are learning lifelong habits.

“It affects their learning and we spend a lot of taxpayer money and state dollars, private dollars to make sure kids eat,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said.

A lot of those dollars are wasted when food doesn’t get consumed. So what can schools do? State Auditor Pat McCarthy says a big part of the equation is giving students enough seated time to eat their meals.

“Twenty minutes allows for children in elementary schools to be able to digest and eat the food on their tray,” McCarthy said.

But after months of visiting 31 elementary schools, the auditor says her investigators found nearly all of them did not give every student at least 20 minutes.

“It’s good information for them, and if it ultimately helps the kids be healthier and have a better learning experience I think that’s great for the kids in the state of Washington,” McCarthy said.

In addition to more time, experts say research shows putting recess before lunch is important.

“They actually eat more food and healthier food,” Reykdal said.

Reykdal says kids have a tendency to eat the good stuff first, like pizza and chicken nuggets. If recess is after lunch, many kids will rush out to the playground and leave their fruits and veggies on the table.

“You have to get recess first, they are active and they sit down and know that the 20 minutes is just for eating,” Reykdal said.

For the report, auditors also sent surveys to all elementary schools in Washington. They say around 129 principals responded. The report concluded that more than half of the schools surveyed or observed do not schedule recess before lunch.

But to be fair, much of that is because there is no current mandate that schools give students the minimum of 20 minutes. Then there are other challenges like overcrowding and scheduling conflicts that make it hard for principals.

“It’s going to be really hard for some districts and they will need time to implement it,” Reykdal said.

Reykdal initially requested the state audit, concerned about the issue. He says he intends to mandate the 20 minutes at schools after a lot of input from administrators.

“If they need more recess monitoring or they need a longer school day or whatever they think is the right way to pull this off and it’s research-backed we are going to be more than happy to advocate the legislature to get what they need,” Reykdal said.

You can view the full report here