Generally when we talk about the school lunch problem in the United States, we're talking about the nutritional value of the food served. But those discussions often leave out one key component—how much time the students are given to eat the meals prepared for them.
Gone are the hour-long lunch periods that students of previous generations enjoyed. Today's truncated lunch periods, according to NPR, mean that once kids make their way through the cafeteria line, they're often left with 15 minutes or less to swallow their food and make it back to class.
According to USA Today, these shorter periods could be contributing to childhood obesity; research finds that when people are forced to eat quickly, they often consume more calories and feel hungrier an hour later.
On the flip side, a student who's among the unlucky last ones served in the lunch line may only have time for a bite or two before she has to return to class. Others forgo the long lines altogether by choosing not to eat at all.
Surprisingly, some common school initiatives, which are meant to help students achieve a greater level of health and academic success, may be exacerbating the problem.
For instance, NPR reports that an emphasis on boosting test scores often leads to the cutting down of lunch periods to 25 or 30 minutes total because educators need to give students extra instructional time.
The USDA's National School Lunch Program, which provides reduced-cost or free lunches to students in need, serves 31 million of them each day. The service is crucial, but with more students qualifying for the program, long cafeteria lines aren't getting any shorter, and tight school budgets can't often provide for more cafeteria staff.
Even federal requirements increasing the availability and consumption of fruits and vegetables to students may not be helping kids make good choices, given their time constraints. "A student can eat a cup of applesauce in no time—you can practically drink that. But chewing through an apple takes a lot longer," said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, in an interview with KQED's "California Report."
Solving the problem in some communities could require action on the part of parents, both as in-school advocates for longer lunch periods and as models of healthy, mindful eating.
As Nicola Edwards of California Food Policy Advocates told NPR, "Parents need to be modeling good eating behaviors and not shoving food through the window in the back of the car as they're on their way to work or to school," she said. "Part of helping people is really making them understand the importance of eating and taking the time to eat. "