Anchorage students deserve time to eat, play, and grow

This school year, all elementary schools within the Anchorage School District were instructed to provide a minimum of 45 total minutes for recess and lunch within their 6.5-hour curricular day.

Implementing the block, however, is a challenge. According to one first-grade teacher, who prefers to remain anonymous, getting everyone “geared up” takes long enough that "some (students) miss some outside time.” Then comes time to eat. Transitioning three first-grade classes inside takes time, and “By the time they get in the lunch room and (if they are waiting in line to receive a hot lunch) are served, they are lucky to eat one-third of their food. They need help opening their lunches, and if they talk at all they don’t get … the food in. This is all with adult support in the lunch room. The amount of food that is wasted is extremely disturbing, but they can’t finish their food. When the bell rings we have to tell them to throw it away and line up. Some kids are trying to shove bites in, and I have to stop them so they don’t choke on it.”

As the teacher’s story alludes, ASD does not provide all students the minimum amount of time (20 minutes, seated) that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Alaska’s Gold Standard Wellness Policy state that students require for adequate nutrition. Nor does it provide enough time for all students to engage in the physical activity and cognitive breaks that recess provides, which a tremendous body of evidence has shown improves academic performance and classroom behaviors. A single 2010 study by the CDC, for instance, cited no fewer than 251 associations between physical activity and academic performance.

[Wohlforth: Here’s why Anchorage schoolchildren don’t get enough time for recess or lunch]

We, the members of ASD60 — a grassroots coalition of Anchorage parents, teachers, and community members with more than 5,000 supporters — want to work with the Anchorage School District to establish a better baseline for all children to learn.

ASD60 is proposing that school board members revise their “Student nutrition and physical activity” policy (BP 5040) to provide 60 total minutes for lunch and recess. To this end, schools would have to move 15 minutes from the existing day to the current 45-minute lunch/recess block.

There are more than 23,000 elementary students in the district. When we consider that more than half of them qualify for free and reduced-price hot lunches, and that many more buy milk and/or food at each school, we are talking about thousands of children not receiving enough time to nourish their bodies and minds. In an effort to move students through the cafeteria, our schools are producing an unfortunate byproduct: children who are too hungry and stressed to learn during the rest of the school day.

Earlier this week, parents, physicians, and students testified at the Anchorage School Board on behalf of ASD60’s initiative. Parents spoke of children sneaking unfinished lunches into their pockets so that they could quietly eat them in a school bathroom stall later in the afternoon, and of not packing carrots or apples, because crunchy foods take too long to eat. Students spoke of being yelled at by noon duties to hurry up and be quiet, and of the enormous volumes of waste produced when classmates who are rushed out of cafeterias make room for the next wave of eaters. Physicians spoke of children whose families cannot provide safe spaces or additional time to play outside, of young patients whose ravenous eating habits after school and unhealthy BMIs are linked to inadequate time to eat within the school day, and of organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics, which is encouraging physicians to prescribe play instead of pharmaceuticals.

Although shifting 15 minutes of the day around will require compromises and efficiencies, ensuring that all elementary students have adequate, scheduled time to eat and time for recess will better equip them to be more engaged learners.

Let us be clear: ASD60 wants all kids to achieve. We want all students to be at their best — in reading, math, science and managing friendships and emotions. Prioritizing a small portion of what we understand is valuable academic contact time to meeting students’ very real needs will ultimately make learning more efficient and equitable.

Kelly Lessens and Carey Carpenter are two of the founders of ASD60, a grassroots effort to improve ASD’s learning outcomes by ensuring that all elementary students have adequate time for nutrition and recess.

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