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CEPEDA: Making lunch something to chew on

Esther J. Cepeda

Esther J. Cepeda

CHICAGO -- Last week, as I basked in my son's glowing account of his first full day of school, I thought about Talia Bradley and Antonia Ritter.

Talia and Antonia, writing an op-ed article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, articulated a little-discussed issue that lies at the crossroads of the childhood obesity epidemic and the costs, limitations and politics at the heart of schools' implementation of the National School Lunch program: the amount of time kids get to eat.

"In the Minneapolis public schools, we are supposed to have 15 minutes to eat, which would be bad enough. But realistically we get only 10 to 11 minutes (we have been timing it)," the young authors noted. "Having to rush to eat is part of the reason for the obesity epidemic, eating disorders, indigestion and kids not doing well in school. There is research that proves all of these points. Kids just need more time to eat at school."

They also noted that rushing to cram down food robs students of time to unwind and socialize in the middle of hectic days and keeps students who simply can't eat fast enough from going outside for recess.

Reading this, I totally felt for Talia and Antonia. My son attended an elementary school that similarly tortured children at lunch.

At this moment you might say to yourself, "Wow, torture seems a bit of an overstatement," but no. School lunchrooms and cafeterias are rife with inhumanity, and I'm not even talking about social cliques that isolate the quiet kids from the popular ones. I've spent time in more than a few school lunch rooms and witnessed the plain awfulness of the entire enterprise.

First there's the quality of the food: There are usually troughs of deep-fried geometric shapes masquerading as chicken, watery ground meat substance passing as taco filling/sloppy joes/Salisbury steak, and bruised, sad-looking oranges and apples that are routinely ignored for the ice cream chest and colorful snack bags. The inedibility of the junk our kids are served takes some of the sting out of watching masses of children throw away nearly intact meals -- but only a little bit.

And then there's the cattle-driving quality of the process. In the many schools where schedules are so tight that even first- and second-graders don't get a class trip to visit the restrooms, the students are corralled and shepherded by screaming lunch helpers who are single-mindedly devoted to getting children into food lines, through cashier lines, into seats at tables and out to lines leading toward a recess area.

When I was a first-grade teacher, I'd sneak into the kids' cafeteria for a greasy pizza fix -- and see firsthand why some of my students exhibited signs of anxiety as lunch time approached.

Last year my food-finicky fifth-grader would regularly arrive home after school with a headache from not eating because he simply didn't have time to chew and swallow much before someone was hustling him out the door to recess. And I knew he wasn't exaggerating -- I had also taught at the same school district and regularly cringed at how lunch monitors would get into students' faces and yell "eat-eat-eat" at them as if they were riding herds.

A survey last year by the School Nutrition Association reported that though the government recommends students have at least 20 minutes to eat lunch, many have only about 10 minutes left after using the bathroom and getting through the cafeteria lines.

Which brings me back to the evening when I got to hear my son -- who started the week a bit nervous about his first year at middle school -- describe how wonderful lunch was. In addition to the food tasting better at his new school, he reported that he actually got to finish it because he had most of a half-hour to eat.

And this led me to think about Talia and Antonia. Their public cry for help this past spring resulted in getting the superintendent of the Minneapolis schools to experience lunch for herself and promise to work toward a solution, which, this fall, won students five extra minutes.

I hope I can help amplify their plea: May the fight for students' rights to enough time to properly chew and swallow their food be heard far and wide beyond the halls of Minnesota's public schools.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.