Just no time to enjoy lunch More and more, the midday meal is a student option.

Posted: November 28, 2006

It was 10:05 on a recent morning at Philadelphia's Central High School - lunchtime for freshman Samantha Aviles.

"I'm not really hungry, but this is when lunch is," said Aviles, between bites of chicken nuggets, fries and a roll.

At Central, lunch is served every period of the day - from 8:20 a.m. through 2:15 p.m.

Central is an extreme example, but students across the region and nation are eating lunch at odd hours. Often, their schools are too crowded to fit everyone in for a nosh near midday. And some schools allow students to trade their lunch period for an extra class.

The first lunch at Delsea Regional High School in Franklinville, N.J., starts at 9:55 a.m. Some students at Tohickon Middle School in Doylestown, Bucks County, eat at 10:10 a.m. And at Lower Merion High School, students trying to cram in more academics or extra time in the art room may skip the cafeteria and eat on the fly.

Some experts worry that students at schools with early lunch times aren't eating well, despite the push in schools to serve up healthy lunches.

For students, the unusual lunchtimes have them scurrying to figure out who among their teachers will let them eat during class.

"One of the questions at the beginning of the year that most kids ask is how teachers feel about eating in their classroom," said Central senior Sarah Dekker, who opts to work on the yearbook - she's the editor - instead of eating lunch at 8:30 a.m.

At Delsea, policy says the 1,300 students may eat only in the lunchroom. But everyone knows which teachers will look the other way so a student can eat something small. And some teachers have a stash of snacks.

Madeline Propert, reading teacher and school spokeswoman, has a heap of granola bars, and she also uses food to teach some lessons - food the students may eat. "I teach reading comprehension using cereal boxes," she said.

Pennsylvania State University researchers Claudia Probart, and Elaine McDonnell worry that students who eat early may be eating poorly. They surveyed food-service directors at 271 Pennsylvania high schools in 2003. A fourth of the 228 respondents said they started lunch before 10:30 a.m.

Probart and McDonnell found that students at early-lunch schools were more likely to buy a la carte items - and while the nutritional quality of school meals must meet strict federal guidelines, a la carte items do not. So students could be eating french fries, chips or cookies instead of something healthy, said Probart, associate professor of nutrition.

"Having meals that early could be counterproductive to students' good health," Probart said.

The School Nutrition Association, a national organization for school food directors and other school food-service providers, will survey its members on lunch times next year. Spokesman Erik Peterson said there is concern that students who eat early in the day are more likely to skip breakfast in the morning and eat junk food after school. "It often translates into a discipline problem," he said. "Kids get antsy when they are hungry."

Delsea senior Jake Rodgers said even though he eats both a 7:15 a.m. school breakfast and the lunch that comes 2 1/2 hours later, he is still hungry by his afternoon English class. "I can't concentrate," Rodgers said.

Principals say unusual lunchtimes often cannot be avoided, given the limitation of cafeteria capacity and the challenges of scheduling. And, they say, their students aren't starving.

Figuring out when to eat lunch, and what to do to make the most of a scheduled lunchtime, allows students to "learn how to use time in a beneficial way, and that's part of growing up," said Central principal Sheldon Pavel, who has no plans to change things.

Using all periods for lunch alleviates some classroom crowding, and allows his 2,227-student school to accept more students who apply.

Considering how early some students arrive at school - the Delsea ROTC drill team practices at 6:30 a.m. - Delsea principal Joe Sottosanti said an early lunch might not seem so early.

That's why drill team member Joshua Hlavka was ready for chicken, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and a Yoo-hoo at 9:55 a.m.

But Hlavka also stays late for band practice, and by then he's very hungry. Freshman Dennis Hardy said it's the same for the football team. "We are all walking around the locker room, looking for who has what," he said.

Knowing last school year's cafeteria construction would result in a 10:20 a.m. lunchtime for some students at Malvern's Great Valley High School, district food-services director Barbara Nissel added refrigerated vending machines, stocked with fruit, yogurt and sandwiches.

Construction is done, and first lunch is back to normal this year, but Nissel kept the machines.

"Vending machines have gotten a bad rap, but they are like computers," she said. "What you put in is what you get out."

Federal rules say lunch must be served between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., unless the school gets a state waiver. New Jersey has given no waivers and Pennsylvania's waiver list does not include some schools.

At Lower Merion High School, every student has lunch scheduled between 11 a.m and 1:20 p.m., said district spokesman Douglas Young. But about 100 of the high school's 1,550 students opt out of their slated lunch at least a few times every week to take a class.

They make arrangements with a teacher to eat lunch in class. Or they eat during a study hall or free period. The cafeteria is open for most of the day, and students may pop in for a snack.

Lower Merion junior Ahmed Mueed skipped lunch this year so he could take Foundations of Business.

"It seems like lunch is just a waste of a period where you could be getting work done ," he said.

Most days he skips eating but when he's hungry, his physics teacher allows him to leave class a few minutes early to get food from the cafeteria, and his orchestra teacher lets him eat it in class.

At Central, Dekker's stomach is grateful to her fourth-period World Conflicts teacher, Pat Hansbury. "Most of the kids have strange lunch hours, so pretty much it's like a lunchroom," Dekker said.

Lee Dekker, Sarah's dad, does not like his daughter's early lunch and worries about what she eats. "It is not a normal time to have lunch," he said. "It's just dopey to me, but there's nothing I can do about it. We tried to get her schedule changed around."

As Hansbury led a discussion on the way elections work in South American countries, senior Nick Brown pulled a PB&J from a brown paper sack. By the time the bell rang, he had consumed a plastic bag of Berry Berry Kix, an apple, corn chips, chocolate chip cookies, and a small box of apple juice.

Brown's lunch period is at 2:15 p.m. If he waited until then, he said, he would fall asleep. "Eating wakes me up."

For some students, eating in class can be a problem.

"I can't eat a sandwich and take notes at the same time, so I just eat chips," said freshman Victoria McFarland. At 10 a.m., she was eating a soft pretzel for lunch. "I guess I'm eating more junk food now."

Delsea students say they wish all their noontime teachers would let them eat at the beginning of class, or that they could have a 10-minute break to grab something from the cafeteria.

That would mean giving up instructional time, and principal Sottosanti said that can't happen. But after hearing what the students said, he said he would investigate adding an after-school snack program, so that students who eat early and stay late could refuel.

Contact staff writer Kellie Patrick at 610-313-8127 or kpatrick@phillynews.com.

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