Some Very Real Reasons Why Kids May Be Hungry at School – and What We Can Do About It: Part 2 of 3

As discussed in Part 1, there are several reasons why students may be hungry after lunch at school. First, skipping breakfast means that some students are over-hungry and hard to fill up at lunch. Secondly, the typical recess-after-lunch schedule often means that kids rush through their meal in order to get out of the cafeteria and play.

There are simple solutions to these issues: Offering breakfast at school and scheduling recess before lunch are two easy, proven ways to improve both nutrition and performance in the classroom. The third reason for hungry kids may take a bit more effort to solve, but we must take it seriously if we want students to be fit, healthy and ready to succeed.

Reason #3:  School cafeterias are often, loud, crowded and rushed.

SOLUTION: Comfortable cafeterias that are positive, pleasant places to eat

Too many cafeterias are run like juvenile detention facilities rather than welcoming cafes. Adults patrol the aisles telling children to be quiet and eat up quickly. The mentality is  “herd-‘em-in, herd-’em-out” – or “eat it and beat it” – not a productive way to optimize children’s nutrition, especially when expecting them to eat new foods. 

Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Fresh Fish Taco Tray

Child health experts agree that students need adequate lunchtimes to get the benefits of school meals. Middle school students in New Jersey and Minneapolis have recently made news by bringing attention to the simple facts: Kids need time to eat and to socialize with their friends. When they are rushed, they may throw away foods that take more time to eat, like whole fruits.

According to a 2004 National Food Service Management Institute publication, lunch  intake for elementary students was better when they had recess before lunch and a longer lunch period. When the lunch period time was 30 minutes versus 20 minutes, elementary students:

  • Eat 21 percent more food by weight.
  • Waste 40 percent less food by weight.
  • Consume 16 percent more calories.
  • Consume 56 percent more calcium.

In some cafeterias today, scchool nutrition directors report that children are still eating off their trays while being herded out of the cafeteria. Making school cafeterias positive places to enjoy meals and classrooms for smart eating is another key to reducing complaints about hungry children. Mealtime should be a:

  • Time to relax and socialize, while nourishing bodies and minds
  • Chance to fill nutrient gaps and refuel for afternoon classes
  • Learning lab for healthy eating habits and acceptable mealtime behaviors

Renaissance High School, Meridian, Idaho, Cafeteria

A calm, comfortable cafeteria does not happen by accident. Like any other important aspect of a successful school, it requires effective teamwork and communication among administrators, teachers, aides, food service, students, and parents. Montana Team Nutrition has information and materials for creating positive, pleasant mealtimes in schools and childcare, based on Ellyn Satter’s Division of responsibility in feeding.

The smartest schools have instituted programs that encourage students to try new foods and get more adults into cafeterias to help provide positive role models. Middle school students in Pawtucket (RI) now act as fruit and vegetable ambassadors and a long-running successful Food Coach Program in Hopkins (MA) trains parents and other adults to make a difference in the cafeteria.

James John Elementary, Portland Oregon, Teaches Cafeteria Manners

9 thoughts on “Some Very Real Reasons Why Kids May Be Hungry at School – and What We Can Do About It: Part 2 of 3

  1. I agree, children may be skipping breakfast and that’s why they’re so hungry but I don’t think our schools need to provide breakfast. Parents should be responsible for feeding their children a proper breakfast. I am also concerned about our athletes in school. For example, my daughter swims 1 1/2 hours everyday before school (6:45 a.m. 8:15a.m.) She doesn’t have lunch until 7th period (1:20 a.m.). That is a long time to go without food after burning up so many calories swimming. I pack her additional food in her lunch in hopes she can sneak in a snack before lunch. Unfortunately some teachers don’t allow food in their classrooms.

    Regarding recess, I was glad to see recess eliminated from my other daughter’s school. They didn’t have time for recess during the regular school hours so they decided to take the last 10 minutes of lunch away in order to provide recess. This only allowed my daughter 20 minutes to eat. She was never able to eat her complete lunch in 20 minutes!! Everyday she would bring home half her lunch, and would complain she was hungry. My children get exercise outside of school so I didn’t mind her giving up her recess in order to refuel her brain!

  2. Dayle, you know I am a huge fan of yours, but, our kids would not be getting enough protein or grains to sustain them. We do offer a breakfast and it is very popular, next fall it will be impacted with new regs. 85 % of our students are involved in athletic activities, so they are pretty active, I wish every kid had a physical ed class everyday.
    I love the new fruit and veggie offerings, but our kids want them in addition to our regular entree and bread. The offering for K-8 is too large, but the 1/2 cup requirement is very attainable.
    My biggest concern is that with all the hoopla over fruits and veggies the info about the max on protein and grains has not gotten the coverage it should have. We live in beef and grain country, our diets have always contained larger quantities of these food groups. I would like the freedom to offer these things too. I must be reasonable with these offerings because money is always an issue.
    Our C stores are doing a bang up business, good for them, but our students are not buying fruits and veggies there, I need them in our cafeteria to be sure they are at least drinking milk. Our school has also started a snack cart in the morning, I have helped them, to have good choices on there, but milk and fresh fruit have not been big sellers.
    thanks for all you are dong for school meals, just wanted to share my dilema. Becky at Malta Public School, Montana

  3. We need on average about 5.5 oz of protein per day no matter how many calories you burn. Most Americans are consuming twice that figure. When I was farming I would eat over a pound of meat per day. It was hard to cut back, but I did it and I do not miss it. Those students who burn lots of energy need more grains. It should not be a part of the school lunch and be available to the average student who does not need the calories. Maybe the sports practice and the band practice needs to include a snack time.

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