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School lunch crunch: 20 minutes or less to eat lunch in a fifth of U. S. school districts

School lunch crunch: 20 minutes or less to eat lunch in a fifth of U. S. school districts{ } (AP Photo/Wilson Ring)
School lunch crunch: 20 minutes or less to eat lunch in a fifth of U. S. school districts (AP Photo/Wilson Ring)
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OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. (KOKH) - Some kids are coming home from school still hungry from lunch.

Several Oklahoma City metro moms said it's happening to their young children. We've got your back, finding out whether students are getting enough time to eat and how it could be impacting their performance in the classroom.

A new survey shows a fifth of all districts in the U.S. are giving kids less than 20 minutes to eat lunch. It is a concerning statistic for registered and licensed dietitian Brittany Hunter-Sanders.

"If children aren't packing their lunches to go to school, they have to wait in the line," she said. "So there's a 20-minute window, they wait in the line, and by the time they sit down at the table, they have five to 10 minutes to finish their lunch."

Federal mandates ensure schools serve nutritious meals, but there is no mandate on how much time schools must provide. The issue is personal for Hunter-Sanders, a mom of four who treats eating disorders for a living. She was shocked to see the lights turned off towards the end of lunch at her daughter's school in Mustang, signaling to children they could no longer talk, only eat.

"I see the behavioral implications of rushing people through their meals and not really valuing fueling them and feeding them the rest of the day," said Hunter-Sanders. "It just wasn't good for me.

Mustang schools spokesman, Kirk Wilson, said all schools provide at least 20 minutes of lunch time and individual schools may choose to use certain cues to signal to children time is running out.

All Edmond schools also have at least 20-minute lunch periods. Spokesman Susan Parks Schlepp said, "We try to make sure that the last student has at least 10 minutes of 'sit down' time to eat."

That is half of the 20 minutes of seated lunch time recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"It's just not enough time for them to eat mindfully and to eat all of their food," said Hunter-Sanders. "So there's a lot of tray waste. They don't finish their lunch. Then they're hungry and learning doesn't happen," Hunter-Sanders said.

Of the metro districts polled, Oklahoma City Public Schools provides the longest lunch times. The district said every school provides at least 30 minutes.

The lunch time squeeze is a struggle for school leaders who want to give more time for teaching in the classroom. But it could actually backfire. Research shows kids who don't get enough to eat have a reduced ability to focus, lower energy and less impulse control.

Low income kids are hit the hardest because they rely on school meals for half of their daily calories. A 2015 study found kids who have less than 20 minutes to eat lunch consume significantly less of their entrées, milk and vegetables than those who aren't as rushed.

"It teaches children eat fast, don't listen to your hunger and fullness cues, and then move on, which is kind of how our society works, which could probably contribute to a lot of our overweight and obesity problems," Hunter-Sanders said.

She is among those calling for mandated minimum lunch times, ensuring kids not only get a nutritious meal in front of them but also enough time to eat it.

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The USDA recently found elementary students threw away a fourth of the food on their trays, while middle and high schoolers tossed 12 to 15 percent. Some estimates show $5 million in food a day is thrown in the trash in school cafeterias.

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