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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The school lunch hour in America is a long-gone relic. At many public schools today, kids are lucky to get more than 15 minutes to eat. Some get even less time. And that's worrying parents and others who are concerned that a lack of time to eat is unhealthy. The lunchtime crunch is just one revelation from a new wide-ranging NPR poll on education and health in schools, the poll we're exploring all this week. NPR's Eric Westervelt has our story.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: It's lunchtime at Oakland High School and that means fence hoppers. Several kids wear mischievous grins as they speedily scale a 12-foot-high metal perimeter. In theory, anyway, Oakland High is a closed campus. That's done in the interest of safety, security and to cut down on school-skipping. That means kids can't leave during school hours without parental consent, especially at lunchtime. But several students are on what you might call a lunch break out.

Inside the cafeteria, the lines are long and complaints about the food are as plentiful as the fence jumpers. Today's lunch is popcorn chicken, potatoes and tamales. A plastic bowl with little packets of carrot sticks looks lonely. Freshman Mary Thomas.

MARY THOMAS: The potatoes be dry and the food just be dry and burned and stuff. It's just nasty.

WESTERVELT: Nearby, junior Olivia Moore eats her lunch standing up. She says the lines leave little time to actually eat and socialize.

OLIVIA MOORE: I need more time because I eat slow and then, like, there's not enough free time.

WESTERVELT: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that students get at least 20 minutes for lunch. But they mean 20 minutes to actually sit down and eat, excluding time waiting in line or walking from class. Officially anyway, students here get about 40 minutes for lunch. But Jennifer LeBarre, Oakland Unified's director for nutrition services, admits the actual table time is far shorter, at times just 10 minutes.

JENNIFER LEBARRE: I think it's a legitimate complaint that there's not enough time to eat, right? I think if we're being asked to eat our lunch in 10 minutes, that's not enough for us. So I really think we need to, you know, really work more towards the 20-minute table time.

WESTERVELT: This school is hardly alone. One result in a wide-ranging new poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health found that 20 percent of parents of students from kindergarten through fifth grade surveyed said their child only gets 15 minutes or fewer to eat.

Ironically, relatively new federal school nutrition guideline changes may be making the situation worse. Under federal rules, schools have to increase the availability and consumption of fruits and vegetables, among other changes. It's part of an effort to improve nutrition and combat the serious problem of childhood obesity. But eating healthier foods can take more time, notes Oakland Unified's Jennifer LeBarre.

LEBARRE: And it's going to take you longer to eat a salad than it will to eat French fries. I mean, that's just the way it is.

WESTERVELT: At many schools, the lunch period is getting smaller. Julia Bauscher is the incoming president of the School Nutrition Association, a national advocacy group. She says administrators are under intense pressure to increase instruction time and boost standardized test scores, so the lunch period is often the first place they look to steal time. Bauscher says when she brings the issue up with principals and administrators, she hears a common response.

JULIA BAUSCHER: But we've got to get in this many instructional minutes and this is our expected annual yearly progress on the test. And you've got two important, competing priorities there.

WESTERVELT: Experts point out the important link between good nutrition and academic performance. Nicola Edwards is with the California Food Policy Advocates. She says parents need to be central to any solution.

NICOLA EDWARDS: Parents need to be modeling good eating behaviors and not, you know, shoving food through the window in the back of the car as they're on their way to work or on their way to school. We have a huge epidemic of obesity and overweight in this country. And so, part of helping people is really making them understand the importance of eating and taking the time to eat.

WESTERVELT: Parents can't effectively preach to kids about healthy food and quality lunch time, she says, and then model grabbing something unhealthy on the go. Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

BLOCK: And you can see the full results of our poll in education and health at npr.org.

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