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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Eating lunch after recess better for students, report says; some Spokane schools in line with recommendation

Teri Smith serves lunch at Jefferson Elementary on Nov. 8, 2018. In 2015, 16% of Spokane County youth reported experiencing food insecurity, slightly above the state average, according to data collected by the Spokane Regional Health District. A new bill would provide free lunches to all students at some schools. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

When it comes to making sure students get lunch with the most benefits and the least waste, many schools have it backward, a new report from the state Auditor’s Office says.

Students should go to recess first, then have lunch, although most Washington public schools in a recent study do it the other way around. They should also have at least 20 minutes of “seat time” to eat their food.

“Research shows that the way schools schedule lunch can significantly affect students’ eating habits,” the audit, released Wednesday, said.

The state and federal government spent about $240 million over the last two fiscal years on various childhood nutrition programs designed to serve nutritious meals to students and promote lifelong healthful living, the audit said.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, with concerns about childhood obesity, poor student health and the money being spent, asked for a performance audit to examine how those programs were working and what could be done to improve them.

Auditors got written survey responses from 126 elementary schools and visited 31, including Freeman, Hallett and Logan schools in the Spokane area.

Before those visits, auditors had seen research and talked with experts about the best way to improve behavior and have students eat more healthy foods. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture sets standards for the type of food schools serve, it leaves scheduling up to school districts and the individual schools.

The research shows that students who have more time will eat more nutritious food and waste less, so experts suggest a minimum of 20 minutes for a seated lunchtime.

“Students who have recess before lunch also eat healthier, waste less food and display better overall behavior,” the audit said.

Spokane Public Schools has been testing lunch scheduling changes at different schools for several years, with positive results, Adam Swinyard, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, said Wednesday. Along with changes in curriculum and better training for teachers, looking at the best way to schedule the school day is an important aspect of improving education, he said.

“Kids have holistic needs,” Swinyard said.

About half of the district’s elementary schools schedule recess before lunch, and more are making that switch with the 2019-20 school year. Many are also making sure the students have more time to eat and have teachers coming into the cafeteria in the last five or 10 minutes of lunch period to ease the transition back to class.

“We’re seeing some pretty significant improvements,” Swinyard said. Behavior at recess is dramatically better and less food is wasted because the students eat more when they have more time.

For some of the larger elementary schools, those changes are difficult because of the large volume of students who have to move through the cafeteria. But that should get better over the next six years as the district moves Grade 6 to the middle schools, creating more space and flexibility for the lower grades, Brian Coddington, a spokesman for Spokane Schools, said.

Of the 31 schools around the state the auditors visited, only one made sure all students had that recommended 20 minutes for lunch, the report said. Some of the schools gave some of the students that recommended amount of time, but in 14 schools, none of the students had that much time for lunch. Principals who set the schedules didn’t realize how much time their students have for lunch and said they didn’t have any guidance for lunches.

Some principals also reported problems with giving students that recommended time, such as not having a school cafeteria and having students eat in multipurpose rooms or gyms, overcrowded cafeterias that were designed for fewer students, too few staff supervisors with a state law that requires teachers to get duty-free lunch breaks and scheduling problems.

Some also said they weren’t aware of studies that show scheduling lunch after recess promotes better behavior and reduces waste.

To help the schools, auditors recommended the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction revise the current regulations on student lunch policy, which currently say only that schools must provide a “reasonable” amount of time to meet current leading practices of 20 minutes of lunch after recess.

In a letter responding to the audit, Reykdal said his office plans to move forward with developing such a rule.