A report from the Office of the Washington State Auditor has found that lunch scheduling practices in K-12 schools has a strong influence on student nutrition and eating habits.

After looking at schools in urban, rural and suburban locations throughout Washington, State Auditor Pat McCarthy said her office found two key scheduling components to increasing the likelihood that students will eat more and healthier food: scheduling recess before lunch and giving children at least 20 minutes to eat once seated. McCarthy said the research was conducted at the behest of Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, who is now considering mandating a 20-minute seat time for lunch in schools statewide.

While McCarthy said some school districts may encounter challenges in shifting toward the recommendations in her office’s report, the benefits of the practices far outweigh the drawbacks. For one thing, she said, students would no longer be tempted to wolf down a bite or two of food before rushing outside to play.

“All in all, what the research shows and what the best practices says is having recess before lunch and then having a 20-minute seat time potentially will reduce waste but definitely should provide better nutrition,” McCarthy said. “They’ll be more inclined to sit there as they’re socializing at lunchtime and eat their carrots and apple slices along with their protein.”

While few schools in Washington have implemented either of these recommendations as of yet, some Pullman schools are a bit ahead of the curve. District Communications Coordinator Shannon Focht said a number of schools in Pullman already release some of their students to recess ahead of lunch and all students in the district have a minimum of 20 minutes to eat. She said the district will likely look at expanding these practices to more of its schools in the future.

“It’s kind of the way things are trending — toward students doing recess and then having uninterrupted time for lunch,” Focht said. “It’s certainly feasible, it’s certainly something that we will do, especially now that it’s an official recommendation from the state — we will definitely be moving in that direction.”

Principal Evan Hecker of the new Kamiak Elementary said every student in his school is released to recess ahead of lunch and is given 20 minutes to eat. While preparing to take the helm of the new school, Hecker said he did his own research into what sorts of scheduling practices would best serve his future students. While some literature indicated a recess-before-lunch system would be tough to implement, he found there were few cons to such a program from the perspective of student well-being.

“I couldn’t find anything that said it was a negative impact on kids,” Hecker said. “The only thing I could find was it might be tough for adult supervision (or) somebody might have to change a schedule — all really more of logistical, procedural things that, in my mind, don’t really center on what’s best for kids.”

Not only is the practice good for student nutrition, Hecker said he believes the practice has led to fewer office referrals and more attentive students in the classes that follow the break.

“All kids are sitting for 20 minutes, they’re finishing their lunch, they’re waiting patiently for their teachers to come gather them and then they’re ready to learn,” Hecker said. “That’s the feedback that I’m hearing, both from staff members, and from community members and families. We have only heard positive things about the program so far.”

Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to sjackson@dnews.com.

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