Mandated Minimum Lunch Time in Schools: A Viable Policy Approach to Address Obesity in Michigan

By: Karalyn Kiessling

Obesity is a pervasive issue in the United States, especially in Michigan where 31.2% of adults and approximately 14% of children are obese. School-based policies are an integral part in addressing childhood obesity as children spend the majority of their time at school.

Since the rise in child and adolescent obesity, schools have served as a place to encourage healthy lifestyle choices. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), for example, has revised the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program to be more nutritious in an effort to decrease obesity. Increased regulations surrounding “competitive foods” (those sold outside the meal programs) as well as new farm-to-school programs and school gardens have also been introduced to build healthy food environments. To promote physical activity, policies advocating the revival of recess and creating safe biking and walking routes to school have been put in place. Additionally, school wellness programs have been implemented in further efforts to tackle childhood obesity. All of these school-based policies aimed at reducing the number of overweight children and preventing adult obesity have been popular solutions to the growing obesity epidemic, but many have fallen short of their projected impact. Despite all these interventions, the obesity rate for school age children in Michigan continues to climb.

To improve existing obesity reduction policies, eleven other states have intervened by specifically defining and requiring a minimum time available for students to eat. Between traveling to and from the cafeteria, standing in line for food, and including recess time (for elementary schools) it is estimated that many children only have between 10 and 15 minutes to eat their entire lunch. Increasing the time children have to eat lunch, as well as breakfast at participating schools, has the potential to reduce obesity by allowing time for students to make more thoughtful decisions and try a variety of foods. Lengthening the time schoolchildren have to eat affords them time to make healthy choices and get proper nutrition before returning to class. Currently, many school age kids rely upon prepared, calorie-dense food with little nutritional value that they can eat quickly for energy. These convenience choices do not have the nutrients required to sustain children throughout the day, and children end up snacking on vending machine food as a supplement. Allowing children the time they need to eat all of the healthful foods made available through nutrition programs currently available in schools can reduce students from making poor nutritional choices and snacking. To encourage healthy eating habits and decrease childhood obesity Michigan should enact a similar mandate for meal times at schools.

Currently, the only standing legislation in Michigan on this issue is the Model Local Wellness Policy from 2005 which merely recommends students have “adequate time to eat”. Several other states and the District of Columbia have more thorough policies in place for comparison. A minimum time of 10 minutes for breakfast was required in three states and requirements for lunch times ranged from 20 to 30 minutes, with 20 being most common among the seven other states. This 20 minute minimum is supported by the notion that it takes the satiety signal 20 minutes to be processed by the brain and the feeling of fullness to be perceived. In line with this reasoning, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a minimum of 20 minutes of seated lunch time and 10 minutes of seated breakfast time.

The process of mandating minimum times for breakfast and lunch periods allows children the opportunity to eat all the food they are given or choose their meals more carefully. Foods with higher nutritional quality are more likely to be eaten and will give children the energy they need to learn, increase their attention span, and decrease hunger. Longer lunch periods also offer an opportunity to teach the importance of healthy eating. Rather than making lunch an inconvenience to be rushed through, children should be learning to make smart food decisions and forming healthy eating habits. As an extra bonus for administrators, adding lunch time has also been shown to decrease food waste. By providing longer periods of time for students to eat, the money spent on existing nutritional programs will be more effective.

Resistance to such a mandate is expected since a lengthened lunch period means increased compensation for cafeteria workers, leading to higher overall costs for schools. And, consequently, if the school day becomes longer due to extra time spent on meals then all staff will need to be paid for the added time. Administrators already feel pressured to increase standardized test scores and maximize instructional minutes to keep up with No Child Left Behind policies, hence part of the reason why lunch time has been cut so heavily. Tight school budgets must be balanced; meaning that important programs or exercise options may be cut to compensate for longer lunch periods. Despite the cost and scheduling conflicts that will arise, helping children develop healthy eating habits by making breakfast and lunch a priority is a worthwhile investment and will ultimately reduce obesity rates.

In light of the information presented, the legislature in Michigan should build upon the Model Local Wellness Policy from 2005 and introduce legislation to clearly define “adequate” eating time as a minimum of 10 seated minutes at breakfast and 20 seated minutes at lunch and further require these minimums be set for schools state-wide. Lengthening meal periods will support current nutritional programs and obesity-reducing policies, creating a healthier environment and future for Michigan’s children.