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Rethinking Lunchtime

By Michael K. Stone

Today, the situation has changed dramatically as a result of actions taken while Muir served as a pilot school within the Berkeley School Lunch Initiative (SLI). A joint effort to design and implement curriculum and food service innovations in Berkeley public schools, the Berkeley SLI was launched in 2004 by the Berkeley Unified School District, the Chez Panisse Foundation, and the Center for Ecoliteracy. The Muir community had generated various ideas for innovations, but many of them, such as radically redesigning the lunchroom or revamping the district food service, were determined to be too expensive or out of their control. They needed a starting place, something they could do that didn't require extra money but had high visibility and good prospects for early success.

During the 2004?05 school year, the Center for Ecoliteracy offered a series of School Lunch Initiative workshops for Berkeley school administrators, faculty, and staff. At one of the workshops, participants learned of research showing that students who eat lunch after recess behave better in the lunchroom, eat more, and waste less than those who eat before recess. Muir teachers and administrators decided to reverse the order of lunch and recess, adding 10 minutes to the lunch period so that students would have 25 minutes of playground time followed by 20 minutes for lunch. "We acknowledged," one teacher observed, "that time to run around and interact and be physical is as crucial to the day as reading time." After exercising, and without the incentive to rush through their meals, children began to eat more and to throw away less.

Building on this structural change, the Muir staff went further to make the lunch period a teaching opportunity, thereby helping students see lunch as an educational part of their day. Muir teachers, who once shunned the dining hall, now eat there more often, and every teacher joins his or her class for the last 10 minutes of lunch and supervises cleanup. The 10-minute period that teachers spend in the lunchroom is designated as instructional time, a precious commodity given pressures to devote increasingly more minutes to subjects covered in standardized tests.

The new schedule also initiated a series of less expected changes. Faced with the push to meet testing mandates, many schools are reducing time for physical education and meals in spite of evidence that children who exercise and eat well are better prepared for learning. Now children at Muir spend both more time playing and more time eating than they did before. On the playground, supervisors report less fighting. Students return to class more ready to learn.

Simply giving children more time to eat and converse over food is itself a way to cultivate habits and attitudes different from those engendered by a culture awash in fast food. "We need to give our children enough time to eat, sit, enjoy, and socialize," says Ann Cooper, Berkeley's director of Nutrition Services. Under her leadership, the district food service has made decided improvements in the food served at Berkeley Unified School District schools: salad bars are now offered in every school, fresh fruits and vegetables are served daily, 95 percent of the processed foods are gone, most meals are made from scratch, and most of the ingredients are purchased locally.

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