Parent and community group asks Jeffco schools for longer lunch time, healthier food

Fifteen or 20 minutes isn’t enough time for students to buy and eat lunch at school — and cafeterias should offer some healthier options, a Jeffco district task force has recommended.

Parents have complained about their children not having enough time to eat, especially if they stand in line to buy food. Right now, about 32% of Jeffco students eat school lunch. Increasing that number would help the district’s food services department, which relies on revenue to operate, be able to expand and offer more enticing menus.

District officials for Jeffco Public Schools see lots of challenges to accepting the group’s recommendations, but are committing to look into some of them.

The volunteer task force met for about a year. Part of the goal was to find ways to get more students eating school meals. In Jeffco, the proportion of students who eat school lunch has increased to nearly one-third, officials say, and is likely due to the addition of some new menu items.

Several parents on the task force said they don’t allow their children to eat school lunch, and wouldn’t unless the district could lengthen lunch time and broaden healthy options.

Even then the group’s recommendations, which include other things like composting lunch trays, offering more menu items, and starting a catering service in a food truck for other school events, likely face many challenges.

Jeffco is planning to pilot salad bars at eight to 10 schools, which it hasn’t yet identified, beginning in the fall. The district hopes to partner with a university researcher to determine whether a salad bar prompts kids to eat more fruits and vegetables, without increasing food waste.

As far as time, the group recommended that the district require all schools give students a minimum of 30 minutes for lunch.

Right now, each school sets its own schedule. District surveys showed that Jeffco elementaries on average give students 20 minutes to eat lunch. Many range from 15 to 17 minutes for lunch. That includes the time that students must stand in line to get their lunch before eating.

“We hate to eat and run. Why should they?” said Guy Nahmiach, a task force member who presented the recommendations. “We heard that when we interviewed students. That was one of their main reasons for not eating in the cafeteria. It just takes too long.”

Standardizing schedules would involve input from many departments, officials say, and the conversations are just starting. It also could combine with conversations about a proposal from another task force, that suggested Jeffco push back start times for high schools and middle schools so that teens can get more sleep. Those start times would affect the schedule and the ability to provide a 30-minute lunch.

The district would also have to consider contracts with teachers and other staff that outline how long a school day should be, and would have to schedule bus routes around new school times.

Task force members pointed out that they heard pushback from principals and that the district would need to help get them on board.

Nationally, Beth Wallace, the district’s director of food services, said, “the time for lunch is shrinking and shrinking and shrinking,” and added, “it is definitely affecting our participation.”

Without the authority to set the length of lunchtime, her department focuses on how to help students get their food faster. That means going to various district schools during lunch, stop watches in hand, and tracking how many students go through the line per minute or per another specified amount of time.

Those observations are compared with industry standards to determine if there’s enough staff to serve the students, she said, but often staffing is not the problem. Sometimes Wallace said her department finds students don’t arrive in the lunch line until minutes after lunch has started.

The task force suggested that the district help schools add or split lunch lines to serve students faster.

In some schools, the cafeteria may be too small, and not designed to fit multiple serving lines.

“You can’t just keep adding serving lines,” Wallace said.

While staffing is a problem — the district has about 30 vacancies that it has not been able to fill, and another 20 to 30 staff members who may be off on any given day — Wallace said those shortages contribute to other limitations.

For instance, only a handful of schools have reusable trays that can be washed and reused. Wallace said that when staff is short, time for washing dishes is often the first thing to be cut, as staff prioritize preparing and serving lunch, meaning there is not enough staff capacity to have reusable trays.

Some parents on the task force said they are concerned about the environmental impact of the district’s food service, and pointed out that often students are in classes learning about the environment, and then see cafeteria practices that may contradict what they are learning.

Wallace said task force concerns pushed the district to start using compostable trays this year, at an increased cost of about $250,000.

But right now, schools don’t have systems for composting those trays.

In the next month or so, the district is expected to present a master plan for Jeffco’s food department. The report should include a cost analysis of how to upgrade kitchens to allow more cooking from scratch, how to better market school food and health initiatives, and whether to invest in a central kitchen or warehouse.

Using bond money approved in 2018, the district is already planning to add walk-in freezers, to expand food-prep capacity, at the 70 Jeffco school kitchens that don’t have one now. The money won’t be enough to add a freezer at all 70 schools, and some schools don’t have enough space.

Wallace said the district also has other equipment issues, and this year received two industry awards including one for having the oldest functional oven in the country.

Overcoming the district’s challenges will take money and a long-term plan over time, Wallace said.

Task force member Nahmiach also told the board that he understands not everything can change soon, but emphasized, “don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done.”

Read the district’s full response to the group’s recommendations: