In crowded schools, lunch feels the pinch

Principal Sue Braithwaite dreads the arrival of 50 new kids at her school next fall. Among other complications, it will mean adding a seventh lunch period.

"Our school was projected to have 600 students last fall but in actuality we have 700," says Ms. Braithwaite, principal of Barnes Elementary in Beaverton, Ore. "So the net result is that we have six lunch periods that begin at 10:20 in the morning and end at 1:10."

Crowded schools across the country, many in suburban districts like Beaverton, located outside Portland, mean cafeterias jammed with more kids than they can comfortably accommodate. At some schools, the desperate solution will be staggered - and shortened - lunch periods.

Ironically, such changes are taking place just at a moment when concern over the dietary habits of students is running high. Childhood obesity rates and student tendencies to graze on vending machine and fast-food fare are only going to worsen, some experts say, if lunch periods become rushed or occur too early or too late to coincide with peak hunger periods.

But some principals say they have no choice. When Mountain Island Elementary opened in Charlotte, N.C., in 2002, officials expected 756 students and instead got 852. "That growth means lunch began to start 35 minutes earlier, at 10:53," says Principal Carol Owen.

Sandy High School, in Sandy, Ore., was built to accommodate 1,000 students but now has about 1,400. The school's three lunch periods begin at 10:30 a.m., 11:25 a.m., and 12:20 p.m., with 20-minute breaks for cleaning and setting up.

In Utah, a number of schools have lunch periods of only 25 minutes, says the State Office of Education.

This worries Warren Gaddis, assistant director of child nutrition in the state. "If they feel they don't have enough time to eat, students might not participate in the lunch program," he says. "They race by a vending machine or leave campus or just don't eat. When they [only] stop by a vending machine and buy a Coke or a candy bar, they're not as likely to pay attention in class."

Little chance to enjoy a meal

With shorter lunches, students eat hurriedly, a habit that dietitians say runs counter to efforts to control problems of childhood obesity. A 1999-2002 national health survey found that about 16 percent of kids ages 6 to 9 are overweight, triple the proportion in 1980.

"It takes 20 minutes from when you start eating for the brain to get a signal from the tummy that says 'Whoa,' " says Debbie Hefner, who oversees nutrition services for Ogden School District in Utah. "We're not teaching kids to sit, have conversation and enjoy a meal, and pay attention to their nutrition."

In New York, the Monitoring Committee of the Educational Priorities Panel made site visits to schools in the Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens and found that of the six middle schools they visited, all but one had cut lunch periods to only 22 minutes. These schools start serving lunch at 10:30 a.m., barely two hours after school has begun.

That's too early, say some experts. Ideally, lunch should be served between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., say the guidelines issued by the US Department of Agriculture.

But some students are eating much later instead. The last lunch period in a staggered schedule may be as late as 1:50 p.m. - which means some kids are coming to midday classes hungry.

The American Dietetic Association recommends that people eat something every 3 to 4 hours, spokeswoman Dee Sandquist says. Otherwise, hunger can cause poor food decisions and overeating.

Some teachers say that when lunch is too late they have to find ways to help their students get through the morning.

Peanut butter to the rescue

Shauna Ewing, a Milwaukie High math teacher, in Milwaukie, Ore., brings in bread and peanut butter and lets students make sandwiches to tide them over.

It's a snack but at least it's a healthy one - and it's necessary, says Ms. Ewing. "Students say, 'I really need it today because I have third lunch.' "

But sometimes overcrowding makes it hard for students to grab a bite at all.

At Montgomery Blair High School, a school of 3,400 students in Silver Springs, Md., some opt to bring a sack lunch instead of braving the frustratingly long lines.

"The lunch lines are consistently over 100 people," says Dylan Rebols, a junior.

Braithwaite, like other principals of crowded schools, says it's really hard to be creative and come up with a solution. "We're not giving up, however," she says. "We appreciate any new ideas - or a new lunchroom."

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