Nearly 70 years after the government established a balanced lunch program for schools in low-income districts, children don’t have enough time to eat it, according to a new study. Harvard researchers studied the food consumption of school children during lunch and realized many only have 20-minute lunch periods, leading them to eat less and inevitably throw out more. Their findings, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, reveal the consequences of a shorter lunchtime.

"We were surprised by some of the results," said the study’s co-author Eric Rimm, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard Chan School, in a press release. "I expected that with less time children may quickly eat their entrée and drink their milk but throw away all of their fruits and vegetables. Not so — we found they got a start on everything, but couldn't come close to finishing with less time to eat."

The research team examined the effect the time allotted for school lunch had on a student’s food choice and consumption. They looked at 1,001 students in six different elementary schools in low-income districts, with lunch periods ranging from 20 to 30 minutes. After each lunch period, researchers measured and recorded what was left on the child’s tray.

It turns out, the students who had less than 20 minutes to eat lunch consumed an average of 13 percent less of their entrées, 13 percent less of their fruit, 12 percent less of their veggies, and 10 percent less of their milk than the students who had at least 25 minutes to eat. As a result, there was, perhaps unsurprisingly, more food waste among the students with less time to eat.

School Lunch Time
Time runs out for students eating lunch in low-income elementary schools. Photo courtesy of Flickr, Phil Roeder

Shortcomings of Short Lunch

When eating under time constraints, children are forced to prioritize the meal and, as Rimm pointed out, try to eat anything they can. A child looking at his or her tray, knowing they only have a certain amount of time left, grabs at the food in what researchers describe as a kind of desperation in order to eat as much of their entrée, milk, fruits and vegetables.

It’s also important to take into account the amount of time children have to spend waiting in serving lines, which the researchers observed often left them with as little as 10 minutes to actually eat the food.

The majority of children attending school in low-income districts rely on the National School Lunch Program, which reportedly feeds more than 30 million children in 100,000 schools every day in America. But according to Rimm, there has been little research in the field of school lunch. While the program is a federally assisted system that outlines and reinforces the standards of food, there are no regulations for the timespan of school lunch. The nutritional quality of school lunches has become an increasingly important focus for parents and teachers who believe there is a direct correlation between hyperactivity and nutrition.

"Many children, especially those from low-income families, rely on school meals for up to half their daily energy intake,” said the study’s lead author Juliana Cohen, professor of Nutrition at Harvard Chan School, is a press release. “It is essential that we give students a sufficient amount of time to eat their lunches."

Source: Cohen J, Rimm E, and Jahn J. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2015.