In Defense of Lunch

Does lunch really need to be defended? Isn’t it just the ordinary intermission of the school day? In fact, lunch’s ordinariness is the reason that it is under attack by education’s denizens of productivity, who would colonize any remaining marginal space to cram in more minutes of formal schooling.

“School lunches are too short. And that’s a problem,” writes Holly Korbey in Bright. Certainly the quaint term “lunch hour” no longer describes students’ experience:

A 2013 parent poll by NPR and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that 1 in 7 said their child had 15 minutes or less to eat lunch, a number that jumped to 1 in 5 for elementary school children. No federal laws are in place requiring districts to provide a specific amount of lunch time, and most states employ weak “adequate time to eat” policies as part of their school meals programs that make no specific time recommendations.

One need not be a libertarian to hope that federal laws regulating lunch periods would be unnecessary. Yet in the absence of common sense about how we should treat children, lunch may well need legal protection.

Charlie Chaplin eating machine
The eating machine from Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times would fit in well at many schools. (Source: IMDB)

The shrinking lunch break creates two kinds of problems. The first is nutritional. Students simply do not have time to consume the healthy food that well-meaning adults have tried to introduce into cafeterias. It takes a bit longer to eat fruits and vegetables, and a Harvard study has shown that those foods lose out when every second counts.

The researchers found that students with less than 20 minutes to eat lunch consumed 13 percent less of their entrées, 12 percent less of their vegetables, and 10 percent less of their milk than students who had at least 25 minutes to eat. While there were no notable differences between the groups in terms of entrée, milk, or vegetable selections, those with less time to eat were significantly less likely to select a fruit (44 percent versus 57 percent). Also, there was more food waste among groups with less time to eat.

In other words, a more holistic approach to healthier school lunches would focus not only on food choices but also on the question of time.

Alongside the nutritional deprivation is a reduced opportunity for interaction with peers. As Alison Gopnik explains in her book The Gardener and the Carpenter, children learn as much in unstructured social situations as they do in formal classroom environments. Yet lunch, recess, and other free moments are increasingly under threat as administrators face pressure to squeeze in more classroom hours.

The attempt to reduce lunch to something like a “pit-stop at the Indy 500” (as one blogger put it) springs from a narrow-minded, grimly quantitative view of productivity. More classroom minutes are always supposed to equal more learning, even for six-year-olds. Why waste time on lunch? This is literally an inhuman approach, one that discounts the needs of young bodies for food, rest, play, and exercise. Unsurprisingly, this educational culture maps closely onto trends in the American workplace.

As silly as it seems, lunch does have to be defended — whether by parents, school boards, or even federal law. It needs to be rescued from a model of education that allows classroom time to crowd out all other priorities, even those that are fundamental to human existence. There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but there ought to be enough free time to finish eating it.

Holly Korbey, “School Lunches Are Too Short. And That’s a Problem.”

Karen Feldscher, “Short Lunch Periods Don’t Serve Students’ Needs”

Chris Liebig, “The Incredible Shrinking Lunch Period”

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