Is 20 minutes enough time for school lunch?

Illustration for article titled Is 20 minutes enough time for school lunch?
Photo: shironosov (iStock)

When I read this headline from Seattle news station FOX Q13— “Washington schools not giving students enough time to eat lunch, report finds”—I paused to estimate what “not enough time” would be. A half hour seemed like a reasonable lunch break, I thought, so perhaps Washington schools were only giving kids 25 minutes? Nope.

A state auditor who visited 31 schools in 2018 and 2019 found hardly any of them succeed in giving students even 20 minutes for lunch. The auditor’s report notes the selected schools were located in both rural and urban areas, and that the lack of a 20-minute lunch is likely plaguing most of the state’s 295 school districts. While 20 minutes is the target length for a school lunch period in the state, there’s no mandate that schools meet it. The average school lunch period nationwide is 30 minutes.

Why is a full 20-minute lunch important? Thinking back to my own school lunches (which lasted 30-40 minutes, if my memory serves), it took time to get through the lunch line, navigate the social mine field that is cafeteria seating, and then finally sit down to eat. Lunch periods also offered time for chatting with your friends, using the bathroom, visiting the locker room, etc. A measly 20 minutes hardly seems long enough to wolf down two Ellio’s pizza slices, let alone accomplish anything else. While fast lunches may be the norm for busy, working adults—Japan’s tachigui restaurants have made it an art form—young students generally need extra time to eat and socialize.


Washington’s superintendent of public instruction Chris Reykdal told Q13 a full lunch period is crucial because kids tend to eat the more appealing, less nutritious food first (hello chicken nuggets, see ya later green beans). Not offering them a long enough time to eat almost ensures they’re polish off the carb- or sugar-heavy foods without touching fruit, vegetables, and dairy. No doubt schools are juggling space constraints with scheduling difficulties, but surely they can find a way to make sure kids get at least 20 minutes to eat. For some, it might be the only square meal they get all day.

Kate Bernot is a freelance writer and a certified beer judge. She was previously managing editor at The Takeout.

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This is genuinely a real problem, driven largely by schools feeling it necessary to maximize instruction time in order to drive student performance on tests. My wife is a teacher and complained about what an issue it was, especially for the younger kids. They need help just to open up milk cartons, cheese sticks and the like. By the time that she had gotten around to all of them, most of the allotted lunch time had passed.