Seattle's Child

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Lunch matters: Ballard mom mobilizes parents to protect a shrinking lunchtime

Deb ​Escher got upset and then she got busy.

Deb Escher got upset and then she got busy.

This fall her children’s Ballard neighborhood school, Whittier Elementary, reduced its lunch and recess time from 40 minutes to half an hour.

That seemed like barely any time for lunch, so Escher took a day off work and visited the school’s cafeteria. What she saw concerned her, and she’s leading a group of parents trying to get Seattle Public Schools to offer more time for children to eat and play.

Whittier offers a 30-minute combined recess and lunch, which falls within the school district’s policy of a 20-minute lunch. But Escher said the schedule doesn’t follow the spirit of the policy.

When Escher visited, she observed that children in the back of the line had as little as 5 minutes at the lunch table to eat. A bell rings 15 minutes into the 30-minute period. The children can stay, but most wolfed down their lunches so they could get outside and play. She saw student after student dump uneaten food into the garbage.

“Kids who need to get their wiggles out have to make the difficult decision: Do I eat or socialize with my friends?” Escher said.

Escher knew she’d hit a nerve when a Facebook group she started called Lunch & Recess Matter had more than 500 members in less than two days.

The group is focused on gathering information, bringing attention to the issue and finding solutions. Some parents are researching and others are volunteering at school cafeterias to help. Parents are trying to come up with short-term fixes. For instance, the school could offer paper sacks so kids could take uneaten food home for later, Escher said.

Escher worries that the children affected most are those who are part of the free and reduced lunch program.

“This isn’t for my kids, who get kale chips when they come home and a healthy dinner,” Escher said. “There are kids whose only meal of the day is at school, and they’re spending most of lunch standing in line.”

They plan to bring their concerns to the school board and the school district’s ombudsman.

Lunch and recess time is the focus of concern by parents in many parts of the country, as school officials want to use every possible minute to focus on academics.

That focus on academic rigor is coming at the expense of play and lunch for kids, and that harms academic performance, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Recess is an important break from the rigors of classwork and it offers cognitive, social, emotional and physical benefits, according to a policy statement from the academy. The academy “believes that recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.”

Children need at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day, the academy recommended. Research indicates the best time for recess is before lunch. Kids who eat after play tend to behave better later on.

The school board policy for lunch length is at least 20 minutes, and all schools in the district meet that requirement, said Stacy Howard, a spokeswoman for Seattle Public Schools.

There is no policy for recess length and each school sets its own schedule, Howard added. Some schools choose to block recess and lunch time together. Those choices are based on a variety of factors including bell times, state-mandated instructional time and required teacher breaks.

The state doesn’t provide any guidance on recess.

“Washington state operates under local control status for governance of schools,” said Lisa Kloke, spokeswoman for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. “This means that each school district has the authority to determine how to implement recess during the school day.”

Seattle Public Schools turned down requests for an interview and declined to provide details on lunch times at schools, but did provide a prepared statement.

“Seattle Public Schools understands the importance of physical activity throughout the day for our students,” said the statement. “Our students have opportunities in recess, gym class and during their regular classroom experiences to move and exercise their bodies as well as their minds.”

The school district also offers an activity program that helps students learn how to maintain a healthy lifestyle and practice life skills such as cooperation, negotiation, problem solving and conflict resolution. The district also is part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s program Let’s Move! Active Schools, dedicated to encouraging children to become more active and make better food choices.

The district said it put together a task force on physical education, physical activity and nutritional education to make sure it is compliant with policies. The task force is expected to make recommendations to the school board and superintendent no later than June.