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