Our children deserve sociable lunch – not silent meals – at school

When my son started kindergarten, I wondered how he would adjust to a seven-hour school day without an afternoon nap and how quickly he would make new friends. I never imagined lunch would be the worst part of his day.

I was horrified to learn that his A-rated public school in one of North Carolina’s best school systems forced my five-year-old and his schoolmates to endure 15-minute silent lunches. Talking in a whisper would lead to a swift reprimand by the lunch monitor. He could even lose precious play time for excessive talking.

My son found this very stressful. Kindergarten meant much longer stretches of concentration. By lunchtime, he needed time to decompress. He continually mentioned his fear of getting in trouble, even though he was never singled out as far as I know.

When I questioned this policy, his teacher told me the short lunches allowed more time for electives and special academic programming that made their school best in its class. The intent was to maximize instructional time for the school’s prized technology and Spanish lessons – in theory, a good idea. That meant shaving minutes off other activities, and the school found that 15 minutes was not enough time to eat if the children were allowed to talk.

Sacrificing important social time for the arms race of academic achievement is troubling. It’s unclear how common silent lunch is as a normal part of the school day; some schools only use silent lunches as a punitive measure, and others implemented it as a protective policy during the pandemic. Yet many, like my son’s school, had it as a daily policy long before anyone had ever heard of Covid-19.

These abbreviated, silent lunches may seem like a simple way to borrow time for more enrichment or to save money on staffing our chronically underfunded public schools. But they come at a serious cost to students’ wellbeing. It is a well-documented fact that rushed eating means less time for students to make choices about what they want to eat and results in our children eating fewer fruits and vegetables.

But wellness comprises more than nutrition, and I’m concerned about how these practices are stifling our children’s emotional and social development. We pay lip service to mental wellness all the time. At that highly rated school, my son’s class got regular lessons about making friends and being inclusive from the school social worker. But in reality, the system was rigged against developing the very connection and empathy skills that ensure longterm emotional health.

My son’s discomfort continued through first grade when he landed in a separate class from his two closest friends. Due to staggered recess, the only time of the day he saw his old friends was at lunch, when he wasn’t allowed to speak to them. Silent lunch deprived him of the opportunity to practice important social skills at a critical time in his childhood, and it actively discouraged the development of fundamental friendships.

I did not exactly have lofty expectations of what school lunch would be like for my son. I just assumed it had improved somewhat in the 35 years since I’d eaten lunch at my elementary school. An intimidating lunch monitor clutched a 3ft wooden paddle as she surveyed the cafeteria in my rural Mississippi elementary school. Anyone considered disruptive got banished to the end of the line. In other cases, she detoured students into the hallway and gave them their “licks” before returning them to the line. Fewer states allow the threat of corporal punishment now (though it’s more than you might think). But even with the threat of paddling, we were allowed to talk, barter snacks and share secrets and face time when we sat down at our tables with our trays or lunch boxes.

My son’s school was playing the same rankings game in which universities ruthlessly participate. Elementary schools fail to prioritize mental health because college admissions and rankings give it little or no value. Schools and parents alike are constantly being asked to choose between the pressure to excel academically and children’s mental health, stuffing their days with activities and neglecting rest and relationships. Silent lunches are a natural outgrowth of this panicky, winner-take-all culture that privileges getting into the best schools over a child’s growing into their possible best self.

We should all be concerned about this toxic competition. Undervaluing collective bonding in all aspects of our society is contributing to an ongoing public health crisis. Last year, the US surgeon general’s adviser released Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation, which proclaimed our nation must invest immediately in policies that promote social connection and improve mental health.

I am absolutely not asking teachers to do more with ever dwindling resources. I am saying the federal government should encourage school lunch programs to follow its own advice – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least 20 minutes of sit-down time for lunch – and treat time around the table as the life-giving work that it is. This work may not boost school ratings, but it is far from a waste of time.

In a society in which children are spending ever more time alone on their phones, providing human contact and community are likely the most important functions of schools. That is, if we want to combat alienation and build a culture of belonging.

Food can be a great connector. I’m a chef for a community kitchen in Philadelphia, and I know that mealtime nourishes our bodies and rejuvenates people’s spirits as well. I see daily how food helps people find common ground. I observe how boundaries relax when a loaf of warm bread is passed around the table.

Our children are not machines to be topped up with fuel and moved down the line. They are human beings with emotional lives that must be cultivated and given a space to blossom.

Sociable lunches can be an oasis where students explore their interests and identities in a supportive environment. My son was very fortunate to have such an experience in his preschool, where teachers ate in small groups with their students and everyone passed around their plates, family-style. They learned patience and graciousness at this table.

Children were not required to take foods they didn’t like, but they were often influenced by their friends’ choices and the stories that different foods revealed.

Around the table one day, my son’s teacher reported he ate most of the bowl of sweet potatoes by himself. He told his friends how his grandfather was a sweet potato farmer and his mother had written a whole book about them. He couldn’t believe that most of his friends had never tried sweet potato pie, which he regularly requested instead of cake for his birthday.

It may not sound heroic, but teachers modeling behaviors of interpersonal curiosity and good-natured conviviality are vital to the overall wellness of not just our students, but also the nation. Silent lunch is the antithesis of that work, inherently punitive and counter to our basic human need to communicate.

A school’s success should be measured not just by academic offerings and test scores, but how well it nurtures citizens of the world. Who are we serving when the success of a school comes at a psychological cost to its students?

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