By limiting trans fats and doubling the fruits and vegetables served in school cafeterias, the Obama administration has significantly improved the quality of food served by our nation’s schools. But when students eat lunch may matter just as much as what in preventing the dreaded end-of-day energy crash, according to a new investigation from WNYC and the Daily News.
Using data scraped from the New York Department of Education’s website, the reporters produced an interactive graphic that lets users scrobble through when the city’s school cafeterias are open. The results show that by 10:30 a.m., one in four schools has started scheduling lunches.
"Regardless of what you think is the normal time to eat lunch, what’s surprising is the variability," says WNYC journalist Noah Veltman, who helped develop the graphic. "I would expect the schools to converge on one good idea of when to eat."
As the day progresses, the chart’s bars winnow into what Veltman calls a "dragon’s tail." Lunchrooms that open at 9 a.m. don’t stop serving earlier, too—often, they don’t close until the last period’s bell rings.
The problem, WNYC reporter Coulter Jones tells Co.Design, is space; in order to avoid overcrowding, schools opt to stretch out the time they serve lunch. "If there are six schools in one building, it’s up to principals to choose the time when they open the cafeteria doors," says Jones. "Rather than try to fit everyone into one block, they keep the lunchroom open almost all day."
"We know from nutritionists that if you go three or four hours without food, your energy and concentration levels drop," Jones says. New York City has the largest public school system in the country, with almost one million students enrolled during the last school year. So even the 10% of schools scheduling lunch at extreme hours (before 10 a.m., after 1 p.m.) affect tens of thousands of students.
"I don’t think we have a solution to this problem," says Jones. "Our goal is to open the conversation."