Culture wields influence on lunch, recess routines

When my daughters were in elementary school, I was one of the complaining mothers incredulous over the school lunch/recess routine which seemed to defy common sense.

When my daughters were in elementary school, I was one of the complaining mothers incredulous over the school lunch/recess routine which seemed to defy common sense.

For instance, in winter, the children ate in their boots and snow pants to minimize the hassle of 15-minute lunches followed by (as I remember it) 20- or 25-minute recesses.

Yes, teachers and administrators agreed, the schedule was less than ideal; however, they insisted there simply was not enough time in the school day to do it any other way. By the time my son was elementary school age, I had become one of the shoulder-shrugging mothers who said to other mothers newly upset about the lunch schedule, "Go aheadand complain, but it's a waste of time."

Well, attitudes changed. As a July 24 Forum article by Tracy Frank pointed out, area schools have responded to research data concerning the placement of lunch and recess in the school day - data that shows children eat better and learn better when recess either precedes lunch or is moved away from lunch time entirely. Reading the article, the mother in me sighed. Good grief. Did we really need research to figure that one out?

To be fair, schools - like all institutions - mirror the culture. In the 1980s, everything was go, go, go. We parents may have complained about the lunch and recess schedule, but we picked up our kids from school and headed straight for soccer practice or dance lessons or gymnastics or karate, living life in the car while hurrying from activity to activity.


The same children who gulped down lunch while wearing boots and snow pants before rushing to recess gulped fast food suppers in the car before rushing home to bed.

What children lost was unscheduled, unorganizedplay time - good old-fashioned let-off-steam time. And families lost day-to-day time together around a dinner table. In fact, it's only recently that we've woken up to the overall cost for society of our changed eating habits.

One of those costs is the obesity rate both for adults and children. Reuters reported this past week that "64 percent of the U.S. population [is] either overweight or obese." Every bit as troubling is that the obesity rate for children has tripled in less than three decades.

It turns out that rushing around and fitting things in caused bad eating habits - eating the wrong things and eating more of them. We didn't eat meals, but we ate all the time. And with that shift in eating habits came the expectation that food would be available everywhere and eating was acceptable everywhere.

Schools became part of the problem. (Why not install soft drink vending machines? Why not agree that ketchup is a vegetable? Why not sell nachos at graduation? Why not take the Whittle TVs with "Channel One" even if it meant turning advertisements for candy and pop into curriculum? )

Another cost to society is not as obvious but just as real. Put simply, we've lost a measure of civility and our culture has coarsened as eating habits have changed. Why, even the president of the United States was shown at a dinner with world leaders, chewing with his mouth open and talking with his mouth full.

In the late 1990s, a friend of mine gave me an article written by a journalist who had been stationed in Europe. His children were in grade school and the article centered on their experience of "school lunch hour," which lasted an actual hour, was served family style and included etiquette and conversation. They grew to love it, but initially, he and his children thought it was a waste of time.

Ahlin teaches English as an adjunct faculty member at Minnesota State University Moorhead and is a regular contributor to The Forum's commentary pages. E-mail

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