When Bindi Nanavati picks up her daughter each day from kindergarten at Arlington’s Bishop School, more often than not she finds the food in her 5-year-old’s lunch bag barely touched.
With lunch periods limited to 20 minutes, and as much of half it consumed with walking to the cafeteria, getting seated, gathering her lunch bag, and cleaning up, Nanavati said her daughter often has little or no time to eat before heading to recess.
“Many days I pick up my daughter at 2:30 and she hasn’t eaten since 9:30 a.m., which was a snack,” she said.
Nanavati and her husband, Jay Tuli, are among many Arlington elementary school parents raising concerns about the time allotted for lunch, saying it is leaving children hungry and cutting short an important social time with their friends.
Arlington’s elementary schools allot a combined 40 minutes for lunch and recess, though schools can extend that time for kindergarteners. Complaints about inadequate lunch time are not new, but — together with gripes about too little recess time — they are getting a fresh airing on social media chat rooms and in conversations among parents.
Nanavati can tell by her daughter’s moods after school that she has not eaten enough during the day.
“I see her face and I know what’s going to happen — she’s going to melt down. She’s not quite right,” said Nanavati.
Emily Holler said she fears her son, a kindergartener at Thompson School, is not eating much during his 20-minute lunch period because after waiting in line to purchase his meal at the cafeteria, “he doesn’t have enough time to sit down and really focus on consuming it. . . . He’s constantly hungry when he gets home.”
Kerri Kivolowitz, who has two children at Stratton School, said, “Both kids come home from school as if they haven’t eaten in weeks.”
Roderick V. MacNeal, Jr., Arlington’s assistant school superintendent, said by e-mail that “In keeping with the mission statement of Arlington Public Schools which focuses on the emotional, social, vocational, and academic success of all students, elementary principals balance instructional time with providing students time for eating lunch and participating in physical exercise when developing their schedules.”
Within the schedules, MacNeal said, elementary students “receive 40 minutes for the lunch/recess period. . . . Principals try to schedule recess before lunch to prevent students from rushing or skipping their lunch in an effort to get outside. Despite this effort, scheduling recess first may not always be possible due to other factors.”
Lunch aides work to ensure that “all students eat their lunch during the scheduled time. The district also supports healthy eating by encouraging all students to bring a healthy snack and bottled water to class,” MacNeal added, noting that a partnership with the Arlington Eats program makes wholesome snacks available at schools throughout the day.
School Committee chair Len Kardon said by e-mail that he is not aware of anyone approaching the committee about the length of school lunch periods but advised anyone with those concerns to discuss them with their child’s principal and then the superintendent if needed.
Kardon said he believed “state learning time requirements would make it difficult to significantly extend lunch (or recess) time without also extending the school day (except for kindergarten), which would require negotiation and likely additional compensation for all of our school staff.
“It is unclear if that would be a priority for our tight budget resources,” Kardon said, adding that “many of our schools have cafeterias that can only accommodate one grade at a time, which also makes expanding lunch time difficult.”
But parents hope something can be done.
Liz Cohen said her fifth-grader at Dallin School “often comes home with half her lunch because she didn’t have time to eat it.
“It’s concerning that kids aren’t getting the full nutrition they need,” she said, adding that not allotting more time for lunch is also a “missed opportunity for social time.”
Mira Whiting said she and her husband took their son out of the Arlington schools after first grade in 2018 partly due to the length of the lunch periods.
“He was coming home hungry and was completely unable to cope with anything because he basically hadn’t eaten most of the day,” she said of her son, who with his two siblings now attends a private school.
Paul Andrews, director of professional development and government services for the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said he has not heard many complaints about the length of school lunch times, but that nationally there is active discussion among educators about how much time should be allotted for lunch and recess.
He said in Massachusetts, that issue is one that each school district must decide for itself, though observing that all districts face tight scheduling constraints because of the growing number of programs the state requires them to offer.
“We keep adding and adding and there is only so much time in the school day,” he said.