OLYMPIA — In recent years, debates over school lunch have centered on the food students eat (remember the argument over whether pizza is a vegetable?).
Now, experts are focusing not only on what kids eat, but also how they eat it. A report released last week from the Washington State Auditor's Office said scheduling lunches could be the key to improving health and behavior in K-12 students.
The audit found students at almost all of the 31 Washington schools observed didn't sit for 20 minutes to eat during lunch. Seventeen of those schools scheduled 20 minutes of sitting, but only one followed through.
Why 20 minutes? Research shows kids usually eat their favorite foods first, and save fruits and vegetables for last. Students who spent 20 minutes sitting while eating wasted less food, ate healthier and exhibited better behavior in the classroom, according to the report.
"The school nutrition program is a multimillion dollar program," said State Auditor Pat McCarthy, "so we wanted to analyze it from different angles."
In 2016, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation issued a 20-minute seating schedule for schools, and five states (not Washington) require it. It's a practice supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Washington State Parent Teacher Association.
"Elementary schools are in a unique position to influence students' eating behaviors," the report said. "The food they serve can improve overall student health or inadvertently contribute to poor eating habits, with unhealthy consequences in the classroom or later in life."
The auditors wrote that they took on this project in partnership with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) after several school district nutrition directors "expressed frustration in their attempts to encourage principals to use lunch scheduling leading practices."
In 2017, a group of Bellevue parents rallied to demand their school district offer students 30 minutes of eating time. But at the time, the district said that accommodating that request was too hard, as it would require adjusting many other moving parts of the school day.
Principals schedule lunchtime based on a variety of factors — when teachers can get their contractually-mandated breaks, when the multipurpose room is free and when the physical-education teacher can teach, to name a few. Adding an extra 20 minutes while ensuring they teach everything they need to can be difficult, some teachers said.
One of the biggest problems schools face is overcrowding. Bustling cafeterias designed to hold fewer students slow down lunch lines, meaning they spend too much time waiting for food rather than eating it. Hiring more cafeteria workers isn't in the budget for some schools.
"A school may have plenty of pizza to serve, but a limited time to place it on the trays of all those students who want some," the report said.
But enforcing the 20-minute rule brings on a new set of challenges. Teachers are required by law to have a break from supervising students, and some schools don't have enough support staff to keep kids in their seats for 20 minutes
Some schools stagger lunch periods to get rid of long lines, or assign students to sit at a table so they don't spend much time wandering around. Some schools make students sit at tables until a 20-minute timer reaches zero.
Another principal, the report said, had a more creative solution to reduce line time: "He came in on the weekend and laid down different colored tape so students had clear indicators of where to walk and stand."
The auditor's office recommended OSPI clearly define best lunchtime practices, like a 20-minute sit-down period and making sure recess occurs before lunch. The report acknowledged various scheduling conflicts and resource deficiencies.
"It's not simple, but it will provide a more nutritional experience," McCarthy said.