Many kids are coming home from school with tales of scarfing down food during the limited time they’re given for meals — sometimes as little as five to 10 minutes, parents say. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Berkeley Unified, lauded for its scratch-made, organic school lunches, taught other districts that sloppy joes weren’t the solution.

But miso chicken and quinoa salad is ending up in the compost pile far too often, say parents who’ve been raising concerns around the length of lunchtime at elementary schools.

Many of their kids are coming home from school with barely eaten sandwiches and tales of scarfing down food during the limited time they’re given for meals — sometimes as little as five to 10 minutes, parents say.

Too-short lunches are a nationwide issue, documented in surveys and studies. When students don’t get enough time to eat, they lack the energy to keep learning after lunch and can end up with health issues later in life, experts say. The topic has gotten particular attention in Berkeley this year, since some parents noticed that increases in instructional and prep time resulting from a new teachers union contract have sometimes affected the length of lunch.

Those parent advocates say the practice in some schools of having recess directly after lunch makes children miss even more mealtime.

“My dad packs me my lunch and I often come home with almost full containers because lunch is so rushed,” said a Malcolm X Elementary third grader during a Berkeley School Board meeting Wednesday. “After lunch I’m hungry. My teacher lets us eat during quiet time after lunch, but not all the classes get to do this.”

The student was among many who came to talk about lunch at that board meeting, the last before classes end for the year. Their parents have been trying to tackle the problems for months, collecting 900 signatures through an online petition and discussing the challenges with district staff on a new wellness committee.

They are calling on the district to extend the school day to accommodate sufficient lunch periods, or on principals to restructure their bell schedules. Both could be complicated and potentially pricy tasks. Scheduling is a balancing act, often involving staggered lunch periods that allow everyone to use limited facilities and meet other daily requirements.

Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Deb Shell and Mariana Bedetti, the two Malcolm X parents who first raised concerns around lunch timing in the fall, also designed and conducted a “lunch study.” They say parent volunteers observed 69 lunch periods across the four elementary schools where they were given access — Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Washington and Thousand Oaks — documenting when students arrived and left, and numerous other aspects.

While most elementary schools have 20 minutes scheduled for lunch — as recommended by the state and pediatric professionals — “the actual time for eating is less when factoring in the time it takes to travel to the cafeteria, wait in line for hot lunch, use the bathroom before eating, and when classes arrive late,” the parents wrote in a presentation of their findings.

In the worst cases they observed, children got as little as four minutes to eat, they said.

The director of BUSD’s nutrition services agreed that the circumstances are unacceptable.

“I get the constraints,” said Bonnie Christensen, previously BUSD’s executive chef for more than a decade. “We really want to teach kids, and maximize the time they’re in school. But if we’re not feeding children, if the children don’t have time to eat, I don’t think there’s a lot of learning going on. They’re not concentrated. I can say from my own experience, when I’m hungry I start to get cranky and ornery. I’m an adult — I know how to deal with that and I have the flexibility in my schedule.” 

Berkeley Unified is known for its nutrition and cooking programs, including King Middle School’s Edible Schoolyard and Willard’s Growing Leaders program (pictured). Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Christensen’s department can only control what happens around the school-provided hot lunches, she said. When the issues were raised at Malcolm X, for example, she reconfigured the service line and trained staff to be more efficient. But it wasn’t enough, and some parents pulled their children out of the meal program, choosing to send them to school with packed lunches rather than pay for food their kids couldn’t eat, Christensen said.

Other parents don’t have that choice. About a third of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

When teachers come up with workarounds, allowing kids to start eating in class, for example, hot-lunch students can’t take advantage, Christensen said.

“I stand in line for hot lunch and by the time I sit down the lights are off,” said another Malcolm X third grader at the School Board meeting. “This means it’s time for recess. There have been several times I haven’t finished my lunch. I’ve cried sometimes because I can’t finish my lunch.”

The parent advocates and Christensen are also pushing all schools to move recess before lunch, another practice advised by the California Department of Education. Some Berkeley schools already do that.

There are many benefits to putting playtime before mealssome education experts say. When lunch comes first, students who are let out of class late or have to use the bathroom on the way to the cafeteria lose even more precious eating time. Once they sit down, their minds are already on the playground and not missing any of the fun and games, so they eat too fast or never get around to the fruits and vegetables.

Katia Hazen, principal of Washington, which was featured in the parent study, told Berkeleyside she is planning to switch to recess before lunch next year. Washington has 20 minutes for lunch, and Hazen said that while some students come to the cafeteria a couple minutes late on occasion, she hasn’t witnessed the ultra-short eating times described by parents.

“We offer kids who haven’t finished eating the option to stay in the cafeteria for another five minutes, or stay as long as they like in the courtyard, where they can finish eating,” Hazen said in an email.

BUSD spokesman Charles Burress said he does not have a comprehensive list of all the elementary school lunch schedules. One of the schools in the parent study, Rosa Parks, has scheduled even less than 20 minutes for one of its periods — fifth graders get 15 minutes to eat — but Burress said that will be upped to 20 minutes next year. Rosa Parks is also the only school in the study with a lunch period longer than 20 minutes. Children in grades K-2 get 25 minutes.

Washington Elementary, pictured, is one of the Berkeley schools that has recess after lunch. The principal says she’s swapping that order next year to give kids more time to eat. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

When the issue came up at the school board meeting this week, a number of parents commented on Twitter that the descriptions of short mealtimes and hungry kids sounded familiar.

City Councilwoman Lori Droste weighed in, saying her own child who attends a BUSD elementary school doesn’t have enough time to eat a full lunch.

“I was JUST talking with a school board member about this very REAL issue,” she tweeted. “My son and I argue about the size of his sandwiches every morning because recess is immediately afterwards. Luckily we have great and responsive BUSD electeds so I have faith this issue will be resolved.”

Burress said the district is “taking a serious look at this issue.”

At the Wednesday board meeting, Superintendent Donald Evans said he would ask his staff to work on improving lunch conditions.

“I know we do have schools where this has not been an issue,” he said. “However, I’m really focused on schools where this has been an issue, and what we can do to work with the principal as well as the parents in terms of coming up with a better schedule and how we can do the 20 minutes.”

Evans, however, is retiring next month. His successor, Brent Stephens, will likely get an earful from parents who want their kids to stop coming home from school famished.

Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...