School eases lunch crunch

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School lunch

A Stowe High School student heads for the dining area after choosing his lunch items in the kitchen.

Stowe Middle School students no longer have to gobble and go.

After parents and students complained that lunch periods didn’t allow enough time to finish a nutritious meal, school administrators decided last week to expand them to 20 minutes.

Additionally, all students will have a 20-minute recess, when they’ll be able to participate in different activities, from sports to socializing to studying.

Student Kenzie Bruce posted on Front Porch Forum last week that the changes were already having a beneficial effect.

“The past few days, I and others have noticed and felt the longer lunchtime and are very grateful for the change,” Bruce wrote. “We also will be getting to sign up for what we want to do for recess at the end of each week — soccer, four square, etc. — and one of those options is called ‘Brain Break’ where we get to go into one of the classrooms and play card games or socialize with friends.”

Parent Elizabeth Croes says her daughter no longer comes home from school with a lunchbox full of half-eaten food.

“I was glad that enough parents expressed concern that they were able to change it quickly and positively,” Croes said. “It was good to have children see that it’s OK to express concern in a respectful way and to have the community respond to support them.”

Principal Dan Morrison explained that the school conducted two student surveys in early October; the goal was to gather student opinions to help modify the schedule “to improve recess, add time to lunch, and make our active study times consistent schoolwide.”

“Based on the survey results, we were able to move from three recess sessions to two while adding new indoor recess options, such as pingpong, flag football, soccer and a technology-free Brain Break space for students to read and play games.”

Once the recess schedule was modified, Morrison said, “we were able to extend lunchtime and add minutes to the transition to and from lunch. Students are now experiencing longer lunchtimes, more robust offerings for recess, and a reinforced culture that, if a student needs more time for something, we provide it.”

Students say they like both the extended lunchtime and choices at recess, Morrison said.

The leadership team at the middle school, faculty and staff members use an “after-action review process to routinely look at our systems, such as our schedule, to see how we are doing and develop ways to further student success,” Morrison said. “We appreciate it when parents reach out to the school directly.’

At the start of this school year, middle school lunch periods were scheduled to last 15 minutes three days per week and 18 or 20 minutes the other two days. Recess and snack, both 15 minutes, were scheduled separately and included in every student’s schedule.

The lunch breaks didn’t include extra time for the students to get to the cafeteria, wash their hands or stand in line to buy lunch.

Last year, students had 20 minutes each for lunch and recess.

According to school administrators, if lunch periods are overly long, behavioral issues can arise when students finish eating quickly and move on to socializing.

Croes said parents were never informed of the change. She became aware of it when her daughter Emily began coming home famished. Asked what was up, Emily said she didn’t have enough time to eat and drink during lunch.

When she talked with other parents, Croes heard similar stories about uneaten lunches and students returning home from school hungry.

Croes posted comments about the issue on Front Porch Forum, drawing responses from parents, students and community members who urged that lunch periods last longer.

“As more and more people became aware and said, ‘Wait, this isn’t good,’ it was wonderful to have the support of parents and community members, even people without children in the school system,” Croes said.

While recent federal guidelines improved the nutritional quality of school lunches, there are no standards about the length of lunch periods. Vermont provides some guidelines, but school districts make their own decisions about the length of lunch periods.

A recent study by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health warns that short lunch periods don’t serve students well. It found students with less than 20 minutes to eat school lunches consumed significantly less of their entrées, milk and vegetables.

One author of the study told Croes that Stowe Middle School’s lunch was the shortest he had ever heard of.

Croes sees the Front Porch Forum campaign as “a perfect example of social media being used for good.”

In an age in which parents might not always know one another, it made the community aware of what was going on and helped bring about beneficial change, she said.

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