When Angela Peters’ two young sons return from school, they bound into her Commerce Township home to check the kitchen counter for fruit, plus the pantry and a garage fridge for snacks.
The boys are hungry, or as Peters puts it, hangry – a combination of hungry and angry.
“I would probably be able to eat all of my lunch if there was more time,” said Dante, 7, a second-grader at Keith Elementary School.
Dante and his younger brother, Gabriel, a kindergartner, qualify for free lunch at school. But after they walk to the lunch room, wash their hands and stand in the food line, there’s barely enough time left in the 20-minute lunch period to eat their food. Much of it ends up in the trash.
Peters, 32, wants to get them more time – and she discovered she’s not alone. Two weeks ago, she posted an online petition asking for a longer lunch period, and the petition garnered more than 2,600 signatures.
She ended up networking with parents and others across the country who want the same thing. Turns out, there’s a national discussion about seat time, the actual amount of time a child gets to sit down and eat after receiving the food.
“This issue is even more important since updated nutrition standards began taking effect in 2012,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a research paper on the topic.
“Today, students receive significantly larger portions of fruits and vegetables with each meal and more of these produce choices are fresh, which take longer for students to consume.”
School nutrition experts say seat time is important to healthier eating.
“Kids are kids, and typically they go for their favorite item first, usually the center-of-the-plate item,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Network, a nationwide group of school food professionals. “They need to have enough time to not only eat that but to be able to try those fruits and vegetables.”
Pratt-Heavener said revised nutrition standards required schools to offer a wider variety of produce, including dark leafy greens and red/orange vegetables once a week.
“Schools really have tried to introduce students to items that they might not have encountered at home,” she said. “But you’ve got to encourage kids to give those new foods to try, and they’re certainly not going to eat those items right away if they’re rushed through the lunch period.”
Research shows that many of the school meals under the new standards are healthier than the typical packed lunch, Pratt-Heavner said.
The CDC recommends at least 20 minutes of seat time to allow kids the chance to finish their meal, though it notes that less than half the school districts in the nation don’t require that.
When Peters launched her effort, she quickly learned that other parents near and far had been involved in the same struggle.
Kristina Blasko has two children enrolled in the neighboring Clarkston School District and she joined Peters’ effort for the same reason; her kids’ lunches go to waste and they come home hungry.
“I’m trying to help her get this going,” Blasko said. “The hope is that once we get one school district to make a change then hopefully the other neighboring schools such as Clarkston would also follow suit. I’m so surprised by how far widespread this issue actually is.”
Blasko said the issue really hit home for her when she was visiting her child’s school one winter to volunteer in the classroom. When lunchtime came, the kids all started putting on their winter coats and outdoor gear, which they wore through the lunch period.
“They wear their snow gear in order to save time,” she said. “So not only is it not enough time to sit and eat, but in the wintertime, they’re wearing some snow pants and whatnot in order to gain even more time. How uncomfortable is that to be sitting in snow gear eating your lunch?”
Amy Ulrich is a mother in Bellevue, Washington, a Seattle suburb, who saw Peters’ petition online and contacted her to help.
Ulrich faced the same issue a few years ago with her own kids and banded together with other parents to try to extend the lunch period.
“They created a working group at the district level to try different things, try different technology in the checkout lines,” she said. “We ended up doing a staggered schedule for lunch where instead of bringing in two grades worth of kids at a time, they only brought in one.”
Those measures helped, but parents still wanted more time and the district was reluctant, Ulrich said.
“What led to the change in our district was that parents hired a lawyer and threatened a lawsuit,” Ulrich said.
In 2017, the district extended the lunch period from 20 to 25 minutes, Ulrich said. But that affected only the Bellevue schools. Some neighboring districts were working with a 15-minute lunch period, she said.
Ulrich used the Parent Teacher Association to help lobby for a new law in Washington on the topic. She didn’t get one that extends the lunch period, but the state eventually passed one that allows for six districts to run pilot programs to experiment with different approaches, collect data on how they work and use that data to help create a new law at some future point.
Amanda Venezia is the director of dining for the school district in Londonderry, New Hampshire, about an hour north of Boston. She got connected with Peters through a colleague and has offered her support as well.
She said she and her peers in school lunch circles talk about the issue all the time.
“It’s definitely a topic of conversation,” she said. “Not only the time for the lunch, but as standardized testing is so prevalent, curriculum time is always a concern. They’re always looking to increase curriculum time and unfortunately, sometimes that time is found with the cafeteria within the cafeteria time.”
Peters found out that what others have already learned, that changing a school schedule isn’t easy.
“The time allotted for elementary school children to eat their lunch involves the entire school day schedule,” the Walled Lake Consolidated School District said in a statement, noting that the state requires 1,098 hours of instruction each year.
Other factors to be considered include teacher union contracts, bus schedules and time needed for special classes like physical education, art and music.
Still, Peters’ efforts have begun to pay off.
The school superintendent, Kenneth Gutman, at whom her petition is directed, called her this week and said he agreed with many of her concerns. She said he acknowledged the obstacles but agreed to work with her to make a change.
In Peters’ kitchen after school this week, Dante gnawed on an apple before he and his brother decided they’d each like a banana. Peters relented and let them eat, even though she planned to start dinner in an hour.
She said she’s committed to making a change and will continue to press for more seat time.
“I don’t like to be told no,” she said. “I’m a pretty stubborn person and for our children’s sake … I think with all the support of the parents and everything we will keep pushing.”