In 2012, the federal government passed policies to ensure that schools provided students with healthier and more nutritious lunches. No such legislation exists for the length of school lunchtime. A 2014 report by Bridging the Gap, a research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, revealed that most elementary school students in the United States are given 20 minutes to eat lunch. 

In District 65, in keeping with minimal time recommendations set by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity, students are allotted 20 minutes for lunch. At some schools, students are given 20 minutes from the time they are seated; at others, however, the 20 minutes includes time spent traveling to the designated cafeteria or eating area.

For years, parents have been concerned about the length of time for lunch and the overall lunchroom environment in District 65 schools. This year, however, calls for longer lunch and recess.

After scores of parents posted to the District 65 Parents and Guardians Facebook group that their children were being given fewer than 20 minutes to eat and/or instructed to eat and not talk, Evanston parent Jaquelyn Lowe created a separate Facebook page devoted to a “campaign for longer lunch and recess.” To date, more than 250 individuals have joined, posting observations from lunchroom conversations with principals as well as articles and research studies on best practices.

District 65 Board Member Candance Chow told the RoundTable that the central question is where the District would find the extra time for a longer lunch period.

Extending the lunch period would require lengthening the school day or trading lunch minutes for instructional minutes.

Extending the day introduces budgetary considerations, as teachers and other school staff members would need to be compensated for their additional time, and would require a modification of the current teachers’ contract. A longer day also raises questions about the mental and emotional costs and payoffs to students, many of whom already struggle with a 6.5 hour school day.

Asked whether teachers would view favorably a longer lunch period for students, Paula Zelinski, District 65 Educators’ Council President, told the RoundTable, “Teachers are supportive of allowing students sufficient time” to eat and play  and “believe that longer time to engage in social activities, such as lunch and recess, can be of benefit to the overall wellbeing of our children.” She added that “given the length of the student days in District 65, we would not see the need to extend beyond what already exists.”

If the school day is not lengthened, minutes would have to come from instructional time, with the District ensuring that all schools continue to meet state-mandated instructional minutes for different content areas.

Ms. Chow said that in the short term, the District could devote more time and resources to improving lunch practices within schools to ensure that at the very least, students are seated and eating for the full lunch period. She also said that the District could move beyond a school-by-school approach and invite help from external resources such as Northwestern University, which offers programs that focus on process efficiency and streamlining.

“There are a number of things we could pursue,” said Ms. Chow.

Parents, however, may not be satisfied with a more efficient process. Dori Rubin, a parent of two District 65 students, said, “I would like the solution to be one that is kid-focused as opposed to how do we best herd hundreds of kids through lunch in an all-too-brief period of time?”

Board President Suni Kartha told the RoundTable that a small team comprised of members of the Board, the Superintendent’s office, and the District 65 Educator’s Council “have put this on our docket as a topic of discussion.”