Laura Fuentes packs her kids’ lunches with waffles covered in strawberries and cream cheese and PB&J pancake sandwiches. Not because her kids love breakfast food, but because their school serves lunch when many of us are still sipping our morning coffee.
Fuentes’ pre-kindergarten son sits down to lunch in New Orleans at 9:45 a.m. and her first-grade daughter eats at 10:20 a.m. Similarly, at a school in Florida's Seminole County, lunch starts as early as 9 a.m. and a middle school in Queens, N.Y., recently announced it will be serving students lunch at 9:45 a.m. On this month’s early morning menu: mozzarella sticks, penne pasta and roasted chicken.
Since when did brunch become de rigueur in school cafeterias across the country? Officials say over-crowded schools are the biggest culprit.
The United States Department of Agriculture offers reimbursement for lunches served between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. State agencies can request waivers if they need to serve lunch outside that time slot.
“Some cafeterias are very small and enrollment may be very large so that schools must start serving lunch early and end later to accommodate all the students,” says Frances O’Donnell, coordinator at the New York State Education Department’s Child Nutrition Program. “Schools have become flexible in order to accommodate the educational and nutritional needs of children.”
Still, Fuentes says schools need to look over their lunch menus and find foods that are appropriate at that hour. “Honestly, would you eat chili at 9:45 in the morning?” asks Fuentes, who runs a school lunch planning company for parents called MOMables. “I’ve adjusted my kids’ lunches to be lighter and brunchier.”
Amy Baxter, a pediatric emergency physician in Atlanta, has a daughter in fifth grade who eats lunch at 10 a.m. Baxter says she understands that overcrowding in the good school districts in town means stacking kids in the lunchroom.
“However, my daughter gets home starving and can't concentrate on homework until a heavy after-school snack hits her system. I don't know how much value her late-afternoon classes have if her concentration at home is any indicator,” Baxter said.
Snacks have become crucial to getting through the school day, and Baxter admits she succumbs to buying unhealthy portable options for her daughter too often. “She's learned to make her own Spaghetti-Os.”
But even though the early lunch hour sounds outrageous, it makes nutritional sense for some students.
“Most children — and adults for that matter — function best when meals or snacks are every three to five hours,” says Sarah Krieger, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “If school begins at 7:05 a.m. and breakfast is served at the school or at home between 6 and 7 a.m., then a lunch or snack at 9:30 or 10 a.m. would be appropriate.”
The main concern for children who eat lunch early, she says, is that they’ll be famished by the time school lets out for the day.
Before Fuentes started packing brunch meals and afternoon snacks for her children, she says the kids used to fall asleep on the car ride home. “Not only were they young and tired from the day, but they had no fuel," she says.
Luckily, an early morning lunch schedule in fourth grade won’t set your kid up for a lifetime of bad eating habits. Children adjust easily to eating on a new schedule. Krieger says that as long as parents have a plan for the family before and after school, there shouldn’t be any problems around meal times.
“Feed them when they are hungry and they will eat most anything — especially vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and fruits,” says Krieger. “The bottom line is that humans function best when food is supplied to the brain to think and function. An early lunch may be what a child needs to get through a long morning.”
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Corey Binns writes about parenting, health and science. You can follow her @coreybinns.
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