Do students in Harford County Public Schools get enough time for lunch? No, says Ryan Burbey, president of the union representing county teachers, and he’s calling on the Board of Education to ensure a minimum 30-minute lunch period in all county schools.
Burbey recently began circulating the following petition, posting it on the Harford County Education Association’s Facebook page and sending it to local PTAs:
“Students Deserve at least 30 minutes for lunch.
We the undersigned, feel that it is the duty, responsibility, and obligation of the Harford County Board of Education to provide a safe and healthy learning environment for the children of Harford County. To this end, we feel it is imperative that every child in Harford County Public Schools be afforded a minimum of thirty minutes for lunch each day. Harford County students are among less than 10% of students in Maryland with less than 30 minutes to get and eat their lunch. Research has shown that kids need adequate nutrition to excel in the classroom. We need to make sure that our students have ample time to eat a nutritious meal before returning to the rigors of the classroom.”
Burbey says that lunch times have declined nationwide, sparking protests from other educators, parents and doctors. He started the Harford County petition to push for more time, which he sees as a matter of equity, health, and human rights. Burbey asks: “Kids can’t work at McDonalds without a thirty minute lunch, so how can they not get 30 minutes at school?”
Most Harford County public schools have 30 minute lunch times, said Gary Childress, HCPS Supervisor of Food and Nutrition, but some secondary schools have less due to the size of the school cafeteria or scheduling issues. However, Childress said in an e-mail, students in HCPS have enough time to eat:
“From my observation over the 7 years I have been here, we do not have schools that are not providing enough time at lunch for students to eat. What we have done, as an operation, is to work to increase service speed in the lines to provide the students more time to eat. In most instances, schools make the adjustment to assure the needs of the students to have adequate to consume their lunch.”
Burbey disputes the claim that most schools have 30 minutes for lunch; and those that do, he said, may only have it on paper, because the time allotted also includes transit time to and from the cafeteria.
Requests made by The Dagger for the number of minutes offered for lunch at each HCPS school have yet to be answered by the school system.
Burbey acknowledges that his call for 30-minute lunch times at all county schools is not entirely selfless, because teachers’ lunch periods mirror that of the students.
According to the teachers’ contract with the School Board:
“The duty-free lunch period shall extend for at least thirty (30) minutes but when the pupils have a regular lunch period of less than thirty (30) minutes the duty-free period shall coincide with such regular period of less than thirty (30) minutes.”
Burbey says that before teachers can eat, they have to walk their classes to the cafeteria in elementary and in some middle schools; and often both teachers and students are rushed, he said.
Nationally, the time allotted for school lunches ranges from 21 – 44 minutes, averaging about 31 minutes, according to a 2009-10 survey of school principals and food service managers, a summary of which appears below.
Studying the use of lunch time, the National Food Service Management Institute found that, on average, it took students 7 – 10 minutes to consume their lunch, with 20 minutes of “time at table” cited as the ideal recommended by food and nutrition professionals. Time is also spent during the lunch period for socializing, travel, food service and cleanup, according to the study.
As for a recommended length of time for school lunch, the School Nutrition Association doesn’t have a figure, according to Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations. However, she wrote in a recent email to The Dagger, the new emphasis on fresh produce increases the time students need for eating:
“Under the new nutrition standards for school meals, cafeterias are offering more fresh produce, which takes more time for children to chew (think of the time it takes to eat an apple vs. applesauce). Often, school principals are in charge of scheduling decisions and it is critical that the lunch period be long enough for students to get to the cafeteria, get through the lunch line and still have adequate time to eat. (After all, students usually have to stop by the rest room and their locker too.)”
According to the National Association of Boards of Education, which has compiled state-by-state data on school meal programs, Maryland has no policy on adequate eating times, although other states have established guidelines.
Lastly, the Harford County Board of Education has no policy on the length of school lunch periods, according to Teri Kranefeld, HCPS manager of communications, because she said that school lunches are governed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Absent a minimum requirement for school lunch periods, Burbey’s effort to raise the issue may offer policy makers something to chew on.
Below are the results of the national survey on school lunch schedules cited above: