Schools' Super Early Lunch Times Are Hurting Kids' Education

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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My kids have always come home from school absolutely starving, and it’s part of why I have taken to serving them a full meal as soon as they get home (yes, really!). But I noticed that this school year, my 12-year-old, who started middle school this fall, has been particularly STARVING OUT OF HIS MIND when I pick him up.

When I quizzed him recently on what he’s eating for lunch and how his day generally unfolds, I learned something pretty disturbing. My son told me that he eats lunch at approximately 10:50 am each day. He tells me that at that hour, he’s not exactly starving, and eats a moderate amount, but not as much as he’d eat if it was a little later in the day.

Well, duh. Maybe that’s because 10:50 is breakfast time (okay, second breakfast time), not lunch time? It makes sense, too, that he’s starving when he gets home, because there are another four hours after that until he can come home and eat.

My son tells me that the reason it’s so early is because they can only fit half his grade in the cafeteria at once – and actually, the other half of his grade eats lunch 20 minutes earlier than him! And there’s no way they can feed the entire school at once, so they stagger the schedule that way. Some kids eat very early, others much later.

When I asked him if snacking later in the day was allowed, he said it wasn’t. “Don’t worry, Mom,” he assured me. “I’m only starving during last period and when I get on the bus.”

Still, I was concerned. And then – lo and behold – an article from the Daily News popped up in my Facebook feed, shared by a fellow NYC mom whose daughter has also had the same early lunch issue.

According to data from the education department analyzed by the authors of the article, not only are we not alone here, but a staggering 908 schools in NYC serve lunch before 11 a.m. – and that’s only with 55% of schools reporting. And if that wasn’t bonkers enough, some of the schools that were analyzed serve lunch as early as 8:50am.

Are you freaking kidding me? Some days I don’t even eat breakfast before 8:50am. Can you imagine how completely starving the kids must be by the end of the school day? Especially because food isn’t immediately available after the final bell rings. Most kids still have to get home before having access to food, and that doesn’t even touch on the issue of food insecurity in our country.

The article explains that part of the reason these outrageously early start times have come to be has to do with overcrowded schools and schedules that are nearly impossible to juggle. In addition, school buildings often house more than one school at a time, leaving each student body with very limited space.

Keep in mind, too, that this isn’t just an “inconvenience” – students who are hungry can’t concentrate as well in school, become restless, and misbehave.

Like many city school districts, NYC has a sizeable population of kids who live below the poverty level and who rely heavily on free breakfast and lunch. If breakfast and lunch are essentially lumped into one meal, it impacts these kids’ abilities to be properly fed. Many of these kids aren’t going home to a parent who can provide them with a second lunch (I recognize my privilege here).

These kids can’t come to school with extra snacks, because they may not have the funds. Or, as is the case in my son’s school, they may not be permitted to snack later in the day when their stomachs start growling. None of this is acceptable.

The Daily News profiled Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn, where students eat lunch in shifts starting at 9:50am.

“I bring my own food so I will have it later on,” said Chelsea Fevriere, a sophomore at the school, who described the situation as miserable. And if you don’t bring your snack to school? Well, there isn’t really any solution for you, said Kamyrah Crosby, a freshman. “Unless you bring your own food, you just have to wait until after school,” she said.

Interestingly, although this whole situation is new to me, and is currently making headlines, it isn’t new to the city. Data published by WNYC in 2014 showed that 40% of schools served lunch before 10:50am.

For whatever it’s worth, the renewed publicity about the issue seems to be working. In a recent article published in the Queens Daily Eagle, NYC major Bill de Blasio is quoted as saying this practice is not okay and must end now.

“That has to change; it’s unacceptable,” he said. “I am a parent, and I can say parents don’t want to see that for their kids.”

Here’s hoping things change – and that it sets a precedent for change all over. There are many school districts throughout the country who face overcrowding, budget cuts, and lack of proper space for their kids to learn. And NYC isn’t the only district that has had to implement ridiculously early lunch times. Similarly early lunch times have been reported in school districts in South Carolina, Florida, and Chicago – and I’m sure that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The broken education system in this country is one of the top crises of our time, and it needs to be fixed ASAFP. Our children deserve so much more.

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