There are currently no national standards for lunch period lengths or physical activity in schools. Research is needed to better understand the impact of school initiatives that improve policies related to lunch and movement opportunities on student outcomes. Additionally, best practices are necessary to support schools that are considering initiatives that address these factors.
This study examined the impact of implementing longer lunch periods, recess, and other movement opportunities on student outcomes and best practices for implementation.
A mixed-methods study including surveys and semistructured interviews and focus groups conducted during the 2019-2020 school year.
Surveys (n = 5107) from students in grades 3 and 4 attending 19 pilot and 11 matched control elementary schools and interviews/focus groups among principals, cafeteria managers, teachers, and parents in a representative subsample (n = 6) of pilot schools in Anchorage Alaska.
Main outcome measures
Students’ self-reported hunger levels and mood and perceptions and supportive strategies from school principals, cafeteria staff, teachers, and parents were examined.
Statistical analyses performed
Mixed-model analysis of variance accounting for student demographics with students as a random effect (students nested within schools) were used to examine differences in hunger and mood. For interviews/focus groups, responses were analyzed qualitatively using principles of content analysis.
Longer lunch periods were associated with significantly reduced hunger at the end of lunch period and significantly increased self-reported happiness in the cafeteria. Based on interviews/focus groups with school staff and parents, the initiative was generally perceived positively with reported benefits including reductions in disciplinary issues and improvements in student focus, social and emotional learning, and overall student happiness and well-being. Several supportive strategies were identified.
Initiatives that increase lunch period lengths and physical activity opportunities have the potential to reduce students’ hunger levels and improve focus and behaviors in the classroom. Schools should consider similar initiatives that incorporate the suggested strategies to potentially improve outcomes among students.
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J. F. W. Cohen is an associate professor, Department of Public Health and Nutrition, School of Health Sciences, Merrimack College, North Andover, MA; Department of Nutrition, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard University, Boston, MA.
M. Scott is an assistant principal, Anchorage School District, Anchorage, AK.
M. Sutton is a teaching and learning coordinator, Institute of Social and Economic Research, Anchorage School District, Anchorage, AK.
K. Cueva is an assistant professor, University of Alaska Anchorage, Anchorage.
E. T. Shonkoff is an assistant professor, Department of Public Health and Nutrition, School of Health Sciences, Merrimack College, North Andover, MA.
R. E. Goldman is a professor, Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Providence, RI.
D. N. Margolis is a dean, School of Education and Social Policy, Merrimack College, North Andover, MA.
A. E. Potempa is a public health specialist, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, Anchorage.
K. Fink is a section chief, Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, Anchorage.
S. Gustus is a clinical research coordinator, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.
M. Stock is a deputy superintendent, Anchorage School District, Anchorage, AK.
Published online: April 20, 2021
Accepted: March 15, 2021
Received: November 6, 2020
STATEMENT OF POTENTIAL CONFLICT OF INTEREST No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
FUNDING/SUPPORT This study was funded by a Provost Innovation Award from Merrimack College. The authors have no financial disclosures.
© 2021 by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.