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Anchorage students do better when they have time to eat and play. The state should take notice.

  • Author: Kelly Lessens
    | Opinion
    , Carey Carpenter
    | Opinion
  • Updated: January 30, 2020
  • Published January 30, 2020

ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News Youngsters spend a busy 20 minutes eating and socializing during their lunch shift Wednesday October 17, 2012 at Scenic Park Elementary School. The school allots 20 minutes for lunch to each grade, from kindergarten through fifth grade, beginning at 11:40 a.m. for two hours.

For more than a year, a grassroots coalition known as “ASD60” has been asking Anchorage School District board members to protect 60 total minutes for lunch and recess for every elementary student. This would be 15 minutes more than ASD’s current policy establishes. It would also align ASD’s guidelines with the with best practices set out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Centers for Disease Control and inscribed into the Alaska Gold Standard Wellness Policy. A change to Board Policy 5040, finally, would minimize the discrepancies among the recess and lunch times offered across the district and dissuade private schools from using promises of more recess or lunch as enrollment hooks.

Mostly, changes to ASD’s Wellness Policy would put students’ needs first. A more evidence-based policy would provide enough seat time for every student to finish their lunches without choking them down, throwing them away or bringing them home uneaten. It would also permit every elementary student to have equitable opportunities for the physical activity and the unstructured time they need to improve their social-emotional skills, counter toxic stress, and develop executive brain functioning — opportunities found only in recess.

In fall 2018, ASD60’s petition garnered 6,000 supporters and helped prompt the creation of ASD’s 2019-2020 “Wellness Pilot” program. Volunteer “pilot” schools agreed to provide additional time for breakfast, lunch, and recess, while respecting the integrity of the new K-5 language arts curriculum. In addition, they aspired to follow the intent of Alaska’s Physical Activity in Schools Law, which requires schools to create guidelines providing for 54 minutes of physical activity each day but does not mandate that those minutes are actually implemented.

More than 8,000 students at 21 elementary schools participated in the Wellness Pilot at the start of the 2019-2020 academic year. These students’ families immediately reported emptier lunchboxes, happier children, better behaviors after school and more enjoyable family dinners at the end of the day. Participating teachers, meanwhile, reported increased flexibility to provide brain breaks for their students — though fallout from lack of adequate noon duty coverage district-wide became more apparent. Coverage of this program generated positive feedback from readers of the ADN — who says Alaskans are divided, anyway? — and has received statewide and national attention. It has also attracted the attention of a Harvard-based researcher, who has donated her time and expertise in the service of an impartial external evaluation.

In a few weeks, the Anchorage School Board should be presented with the administration’s internal and external reports on this pilot program. In the meantime, just-released testing data available through ASD’s Data Dashboard can serve as a lens into some possible academic correlations between increased time for recess and lunch and improved learning outcomes.

Overall, 65 ASD elementary schools have data points from identical fall and winter “Measures of Academic Progress” testing periods in both the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 school years. ASD60 looked for reading and math growth across those specific time frames, with an eye for whether any pilot program schools could beat previous rates of growth.

Pilot school results merit both local and state attention. As a group, we noticed that a higher percentage of pilot schools (62%) improved their rates of reading growth under the pilot program’s provisions than non-pilot schools (43%) demonstrated under ASD’s standard scheduling requirements. In math, meanwhile, 57% of the pilot schools demonstrated higher rates of math growth, while 55% of the non-pilot schools accomplished this feat.

Now, we understand that schools are complex, moving ecosystems with tremendous variables at play, but our analysis suggests that if we measure success by test scores alone (which, frankly, we should not), then the additional allocation of a small amount of time to nutrition and play may improve students’ learning environment, without showing evidence of academic harm, while also improving students’ social and emotional learning skills, the quality of their caloric intake and their opportunities for physical activity. In our eyes, this is a win all around.

The community members behind ASD60 look forward to hearing a robust presentation of the Wellness Pilot’s findings before the end of February, and hope that those results will prompt School Board members to align ASD’s Wellness Policy with evidence-based and equitable best practices for all students.

Finally, legislators interested in low-cost ways to improve Alaska’s student outcomes, close achievement gaps, and ensure more equitable opportunities for academic growth statewide may wish to establish protections for time to eat (20 minutes for lunch, seated) and unstructured time for recess (at least 30 minutes a day) statewide, and consider putting some teeth in the Physical Activity in Schools Law.

Kelly Lessens and Carey Carpenter, co-founders of ASD60, have presented preliminary results from their grassroots work for the State of Alaska and the Cancer Action Network, and were recently awarded the NEA-Alaska’s “Champions of Children” Award for 2020.

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