Auditor's Office: Kids need more time for lunch
Mukilteo Elementary one of 31 schools visited
Last updated 9/19/2019 at 12:13pm
Elementary school students need more time to eat lunch.
That’s the word from the State Auditor’s Office (SAO), which recently performed an audit on lunchtime practices and scheduling.
During that audit, the SAO visited 31 elementary schools across the state, including a stop locally at Mukilteo Elementary, and found that most schools did not give their students the recommended amount of time to eat.
Per the report, research shows that when students go to recess before lunch and have more time to eat, they are more likely to make healthier choices in the lunch line.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal in a recent news release said there are “several logistical reasons for this,” before citing inadequate facilities, overcrowding, and scheduling.
“But sometimes difficult tasks are what produce the best outcomes,” he added.
Per the SAO report, nearly all of the schools visited during its audit didn’t give students the recommended seated lunchtime of 20 minutes. Per the Mukilteo Elementary website, each lunch period last 20 minutes total.
Principals are responsible for setting school schedules, “often without specific guidance around lunchtime,” the report said
“Most principals did not realize the actual amount of time all their students had to eat lunch and tended to overestimate it. About half of principals interviewed who allocate less than 20 minutes of seat time believe students already have enough time to eat,” the report said.
According to the SAO, principals cited “many challenges” to ensuring that there is 20 minutes of seated lunchtime for each student. Concerns cited were, as Reykdal said, scheduling, limited facilities, and resource constraints.
In addition to visiting the 31 schools, the SAO sent out a separate survey electronically to schools with students in kindergarten through fifth grade. The SAO sent out 1,043, and received just 126 responses from principals statewide (around 12 percent).
The SAO matched the results from the survey with enrollment and demographic information from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, Reykdal’s office, as well as “auditor judgment” to determine which schools the SAO would visit.
While 17 of the schools visited scheduled at least some students 20 minutes of seated lunchtime, just one ensured that all students received 20 minutes, and in 14 schools, all the students observed had less than 20 minutes, per the SAO report.
Additionally, most of the schools reviewed don’t have recess before lunch, which is what’s recommended.
As noted, Mukilteo Elementary was one of just 31 schools visited in the entire state by the SAO.
Melanie Bradford, a mother of Mukilteo Elementary students, said this is an issue she has brought up to the school and school district over the years.
“I have made my complaints in person, to the principal, to the school board, and to administrators and nothing has increased the amount of sit-down time my children get to eat during lunch, especially if they want to purchase a hot lunch,” she said.
She noted that state law requires that state employees receive a 30-minute meal period, but students, primarily in elementary schools, are receiving considerably less time.
Bradford said she’s happy that the SAO visited Mukilteo Elementary and appears to have confirmed what she’s said for years, she’s not holding her breath as far as changes.
“I am not convinced that the state audit will cause anything to change. I believe more parents must speak up on behalf of their child’s heath and demand to the School Board that their children receive more time to eat,” she said. “Teaching our children to gobble half of their lunch in ten minutes or less is a health issue.”
In addition to Bradford’s comments, The Beacon received thoughts from multiple other parents of current and/or former Mukilteo Elementary students who said they had concerns with the lack of seated lunchtime, especially for students purchasing hot lunches.
The Beacon reached out to the Mukilteo School District for comment on the SAO report, and received one from Brad Wall, Nutrition Services Manager for the district:
“Mukilteo School District Nutrition Services is in full support of students having adequate time to eat their meals. We believe mealtimes are a valuable part of the school day, a time in a student’s day that is vital to their health and well-being. However, there are many factors that drive lunch times including school schedules, cafeteria space and large numbers of students to serve.
“Nutrition Services continuously seeks to maximize efficiency in how we feed our children.
“We recently invested in a new Point of Sale system and use ID Metrics scanning at many of our elementary schools to help students move through lines more quickly and give them more time to eat.
“Nutrition Services is committed to continuing to work through the scheduling, facility and other challenges to provide adequate time for students to eat their meals.”
Why do the lunch surveys?
While this SAO report may not get as much attention as audits of Cities or other big organizations (like the 2017 audit of the City of Mukilteo was a big deal here during the severance agreement issue), the SAO says the survey and school visits serve an important purpose.
They were conducted due, in part, to the fact that obesity in school-age children is a growing concern locally and nationwide, the report said.
“Over the past two years, the state and federal governments have spent nearly $240 million on programs designed to provide students with healthier options at meal times and promote lifelong healthy living in order to combat rising obesity rates,” Reykdal said in a statement.
Reykdal said his office will initiate a rulemaking process to require schools to provide at least 20 minutes of seated lunch time for all K-12 students in the state, as well as recess before lunch for students in elementary school, which is what the SAO recommends.
“We are not aiming to make sweeping changes overnight,” he said. “We expect it will take several years to implement these changes in some schools. Throughout the rulemaking process, we will be engaging with all of our education partners. The purpose of this public process is to listen, and we will do so authentically.”
Edmonds Beacon Editor Brian Soergel contributed to this report.