Students attending Los Angeles schools will no longer be forced to choose between eating a quick lunch on the go or skipping the midday meal altogether.
A food and nutrition policy motion by Los Angeles Unified School District Board Member Steven Zimmer that passed unanimously Dec. 11 will provide each student in the district with at least 20 minutes to eat his or her meal after sitting down during their lunch period.
At some LAUSD schools, students are given less than 15 minutes to eat due to different bell schedules.
“The board is sending a strong message that we are looking at all aspects of nutrition in our schools – adequate time to eat, making meals nutritious and appealing, listening to students, parents and community voices and connecting our cafeterias, our school gardens and our classrooms,” Zimmer said after the vote. “These are essential conditions for building a healthy learning environment for all children.”
The motion also requires all schools to increase student breakfast participation through existing district programs and ensure that it is served before 10:30 a.m. or two hours before lunch.
An important component of the nutrition policy is encouraging schools to create learning and edible gardens. The day before the board vote, Zimmer and other LAUSD officials hosted a press conference at Mark Twain Middle School in Mar Vista, highlighting the school’s garden and offering details about Zimmer’s policy motion.
“We’re really going back to the cycle of learning (with on campus gardens) where you’re learning where food comes from, especially from a nutritional and educational standpoint,” said David Binkle, director of LAUSD’s Food Services Division.
Students enjoyed meals that were harvested from the garden during their meal time on the day of the press conference.
Dr. Rex Patton, the principal at Mark Twain, welcomed Zimmer during his remarks before an assembled audience of students, parents and garden volunteers.
“Over the last year, I’ve heard (Zimmer) talk about how he would like to have a policy that will improve nutrition. And now it looks like it might happen,” Patton told the audience.
Binkle said Zimmer’s motion addressed polices that were put in place in prior years. “It brings them all current and addresses the need to make sure that children also have access to meals,” he explained.
Health professionals stress the importance of eating a healthy, well-rounded meal before and during school hours. They say children are susceptible to disruptive behavior when they are not able to eat at a certain time or are forced to eat in a hurry.
“If they’re not getting proper nutrition, we see more behavioral issues,” said Dr. Stephanie Mihalas, a licensed psychologist and nationally certified school psychologist who works with pre-schoolers and adolescents. “When they haven’t had time to eat, it puts them in a state of anxiety that they often bring home.”
Dr. Wendy Slusser, a pediatrician who works with the Venice Family Clinic, says LAUSD nutrition policies are already having a beneficial effect on students.
“A healthy meal starting from breakfast on through lunch is having a tremendous impact on a student’s ability to concentrate at school,” said Slusser, an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at UCLA. “What we work on at the clinic is to encourage parents to serve breakfast at home if they can and how very important it is to have a healthy breakfast.”
Patton makes certain that his middle school students have at least 30 minutes to consume their lunch. “Students really need time to sit and digest their meals,” the principal said. “I don’t want to rush them though their meals.”
Slusser said studies have shown how important proper nutrition at school is for a child’s cognitive development.
“My research indicates that many students in LAUSD often eat healthier at school than they do at home,” she said. “The LAUSD school board has really been tremendous in supporting efforts to improve diets of kids.”
Slusser said, her research indicated obesity levels had risen among children since 1997. Having salad bars at schools, she said, has helped to curb the level of obesity at the school district.
Mark Twain has a salad bar in its cafeteria twice a week.
Mihalas, who heads the Los Angeles County Psychological Association’s Media Committee, touched upon another intrinsic dynamic that has occurred during lunch for decades.
“Students socialize with each other during lunch,” she noted. “It’s an important time for social and emotional development.”
When students have to choose between eating and playing with friends and classmates, an imbalance is created, which can lead to behavioral problems, she said.
“A lot of students are being forced to choose between eating and playing,” said Mihalas, who attended school in Santa Monica.
“And if they don’t have to time to eat or are not getting the proper nutrition, it can lead to conflicts on the playground.”
The newly approved policy also calls for improving the appeal of school meals as students are introduced to different foods; increasing access to fresh produce through salad bars; and the use of vegetables from school gardens and local farms, providing more education about nutrition and establishing an even stronger working partnership with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health in the fight to reduce childhood obesity.
In addition, the resolution also directs LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy to report back in six months on adherence to the district’s nationally recognized nutrition policy which emphasizes healthy meals. §