IOWA CITY — Chris Liebig sometimes eats school lunch with his kids — on the way home from school.
Liebig has three daughters at Iowa City’s Hoover Elementary, and like other elementary schools in the Iowa City district, the lunch period is 15 minutes long.
“They usually don’t finish the lunch,” he said via e-mail. “They come home hungry and often end up taking out their lunchboxes and finishing lunch as we walk home at 3.”
A growing number of Iowa City school district parents are saying 15 minutes is not enough time for children to eat, promotes unhealthy eating and has social implications. An online version of a letter sent to school officials has been signed by more than 55 people.
Superintendent Stephen Murley, a parent of two elementary students, said he understands their concerns and the district will study whether change is needed.
Some parent have suggested adding a few minutes to the school day.
That’s not a simple fix, he cautioned. That also would affect the junior highs and high schools because of bus schedules. (Incidentally, older students get about 30 minutes to eat.)
In elementary schools, a 15-minute lunch period either precedes or follows recess, depending on the school. Some schools previously offered a 20-minute lunch, but with class time at a premium, this year the district’s 19 elementary schools are down to 15 minutes. That includes time spent standing in line for hot lunch, Murley said.
The amount of time given for lunch varies in Cedar Rapids elementary schools, but the average is 20 minutes, school officials there said. College Community, Clear Creek Amana and Linn-Mar range from 20 to 30 minutes.
The median lunch period in elementary schools nationally was 25 minutes in 2009, according to a survey by the School Nutrition Association, a non-profit organization that represents food service workers and advocates for healthy lunches.
A 2001 study by the federally funded National Food Service Management Institute found that K-12 students needed about 10 minutes to eat, plus time for getting to and from the cafeteria, going through the serving line, cleaning up and socializing.
Citing that study, the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity, which is made up of more than 300 organizations, recommends students get at least 20 minutes of lunch time.
“Kids often eat their favorite thing first, and if they don’t have enough time to eat all their meals, sometimes it’s the fruits and vegetables that get left behind,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association.
That’s a concern raised by Katina Lillios, who sent the letter to school officials and has blogged about the issue. She said her son, a sixth-grader at Iowa City’s Shimek Elementary, doesn’t have time to finish his lunch and goes for snacks in the cupboard after school.
An anthropology professor at the University of Iowa, Lillios said she understands the pressures schools are under these days with academics, particularly with standardized tests taking on more importance, but she doesn’t believe lunch should be shorted.
“I would argue if you have a hungry child … you have a child who is unable to actually process effectively or efficiently that classroom material that you’ve been giving them in that stead,” Lillios said.
Shimek Principal Terry Dervrich said students are given 15 to 20 minutes to eat — more for kindergartners — and can stay until they finish lunch, which would cut into a student’s recess.
Teachers get a 30-minute lunch but often catch up on work while eating.
“I see our system working well, or I would be working really hard to change it,” Dervrich said.
During a recent lunch period at Shimek, a few kids were finished eating after 10 minutes, but many still had half a hamburger or lasagna left at 15 minutes. After about 16 minutes, a Shimek teacher started telling the tables of first-graders that they could go to recess if they were finished.
Anne Gannaway ate with her first-grade son that day, whom she described as a “voracious eater” with no problem finishing in 15 minutes. She said her two younger children may struggle to finish, though.
Murley can relate. He has two sons at Weber Elementary in Iowa City. The third-grader eats fast to get out to recess, while his sixth-grader is one of the last kids to finish and may not have enough time, he said.
“Putting my parent hat on, I understand the concern from both sides,” he said.
Lunch also is a time for kids to relax and develop social skills, said Helen Neumann, the parent of two Hoover Elementary students.
“I feel like the adults at the school are asking the kids to do things the adults wouldn’t do,” she said.