Friendships are made and broken here. Social strategies hashed out and homework completed. Then, of course, there’s the food. High school lunch is all of that and more. And few debates about school lunch cut to the quick like the matter of how many lunch periods there should be on any given campus.
Of Palm Beach County’s 23 traditional high schools, a majority have multiple lunches – rotating hundreds of students through the cafeteria, while hundreds of others attend class.
But at least seven high schools ring the lunch bell only once, unleashing up to 3,300 students en masse to dine from cafeteria to courtyard and all manner of spaces in between: Jupiter, Suncoast, Wellington, Park Vista, West Boca Raton and Spanish River high schools as well as Dreyfoos School of the Arts. The ranks are one school thinner this year, after Boca High ended its one-lunch run.
Though no one has taken a poll, the chatter that erupts from a single Facebook post questioning which school does what, reveals what most principals know to be true: The universal lunch period is both loved and loathed by students and parents alike.
The pros include the social stuff like eating with your best friend regardless of their schedule and the opportunity for tutoring and for clubs to meet within the school day. The cons are often measured by the length of lunch line – do all students get enough time to get a meal and eat it?
And some elements – like where students eat when they don’t all fit in the cafeteria – can be a pro or a con depending on whom you ask.
Can students get something to eat?
Allison Monbleau, the district’s director of food service, is a veteran of the debate. Her department regularly discusses the pros and cons with principals. It actively advocates for multiple lunch periods and over the past several years has offered a huge carrot – a remodeled cafeteria (paid for with federal grants) with more staff for more lunch lines. But only if the school promises more than one lunch period.
The argument: More students eat when the lines are shorter. The lines are shorter when you have fewer students at a time eating lunch.
As Monbleau sees it, there are many good reasons to have only one lunch, but they have nothing to do with feeding children, which is what lunch is supposed to be about — at least from her department’s perspective.
“If you’re hungry, you can’t learn,” and that makes it a poor academic choice, Monbleau argues. But she knows principals can make academic-related arguments in favor of one lunch as well, such as when all of the students can’t go to a club meeting or stay after school for tutoring.
1 principal, 2 different decisions
In the end, principals are left to make the call.
Karen Whetsell presided over multiple lunches when she was Boynton Beach High’s principal a few years back and now stands watch over a single lunch hour as principal at Suncoast High in Riviera Beach.
Campus layout, student population and even attendance zones all weighed in the choices she and her administrative teams made.
“Boynton Beach High? We did multiple lunches. For supervision, it was better for us to have multiple lunches there,” Whetsell said, describing the difficulties, for example, of managing Boynton Beach High’s open courtyard. Before the era of a single-point-of-entry layout, the space made it difficult to monitor student comings and goings, she said.
At Boynton, Whetsell also moved guidance counselors – and their laptops — into the cafeteria to give them a higher profile with students, providing a simple check-in point for students to monitor progress to graduation and applications to college.
Suncoast presented different challenges.
The popular magnet school’s 1,600 students come from all over the county, some on Tri-Rail. Staying after school for a club meeting or tutoring poses conflicts with transportation and sports. Whetsell prefers one lunch hour in which students can eat and roam campus, meeting with teachers, all of whom are free in the same window of time.
At Wellington High School, now-retired Principal Mario Crocetti oversaw the move from two lunches to one longer period about five years ago.
“It’s a manpower thing,” he said while still in his Wellington office last spring. “We probably have three times as many people supervising in one lunch.”
That didn’t prevent a serious fight from breaking out on campus last school year, but Crocetti said in an interview afterward that having nearly 2,700 students roaming the campus on lunch hour didn’t contribute to fracas nor did it impede adults from intervening.
“It was probably about 150 students that were standing in the way out of that 2,700,” he said. “We turn everyone loose at the same time seven times a day,” Crocetti said. “It’s not a problem.”
From his take, it’s not like having multiple lunch periods resolved some of the most common complaints he hears about having a single one. One lunch or two, with so many students, the cafeteria still couldn’t hold all those pouring in the doors. Meanwhile, when he hosted multiple lunches, Crocetti spent the first weeks of school fielding calls from parents wanting their child’s schedule changed so he or she could eat lunch with a pal. Some didn’t bother with official schedule changes: Students just skipped class to be with friends.
“That first year, maybe the first couple of months into one lunch, there were concerns,” Crocetti said. But they faded, overshadowed by perks such as the simplicity of scheduling pep rallies that didn’t cut into class time. Bad weather? On rainy days, administrators opened various rooms and hallways to keep kids from getting soaked, he said.
To address the longer lines, Wellington and other one-lunch schools stretch meal time from about 30 minutes to about 40 minutes.
“The feedback we get is they like the extra time. They like the clubs that meet at lunch and the different activities,” Crocetti said.
The freedom to eat with friends regardless of their schedule tops the long list of pros Suncoast students cited on a recent lunchtime visit.
“If you have a sibling and you don’t know anyone, you can sit with them,” said freshman Cassi Ambrosino, who confesses to doing this more than once in the first week. Her sister’s a junior.
A week later, Cassi found her spot with a smidgen of shade in the courtyard with other freshmen. (There’s no written rule, but Callie and Katie Allen’s older brother has advised them that the cafeteria is for juniors and seniors – “They won’t be mean or anything,” Callie noted. But they all know each other in there. A freshman would be the outsider.)
Talking to teachers during lunch
Palmer Allen is in the courtyard now, but she likes the freedom to seek out her teachers while everyone is on break.
The lunch hour at Suncoast begins at 12:10. Freshmen, per unspoken code, seem to populate the courtyard on low walls under trees and at tables shaded by umbrellas and overhangs. A bench lined with athletes sits against the cafeteria’s outside wall. Inside the tables are packed.
Jaydon Davis, a senior, and Joey Mazza, a junior, are chowing on teriyaki chicken and rice. They waited in line 10 minutes. A shorter line would be nice, but “it would split us up if we have multiple lunches,” Mazza said.
Various classrooms around campus are abuzz, too, including teacher Traci Lowe’s room.
“It was supposed to be my debaters and newspaper kids,” Lowe says, acknowledging her students have drawn friends. About 30 students are clumped at desks in groups of threes, fours and fives, chatting over lunches brought from home, snacks pilfered from a friend’s plate and from the cafeteria around the corner.
The room has a small fridge and a microwave too – one of many in classrooms across campus.
Rebecca Davis, a senior, whose lunch is nowhere in sight likes seeing her friends and figures it’s less disruptive to classes when everyone eats at once. Shoobie Leonard, also a senior, agrees, adding, “Our school is the perfect size” for one lunch.
Twins Eryse and Eryonne White, both sophomores, made it through the lunch line and returned to Lowe’s room with fruit cups and beef pies. “It’s way better this way. We get to eat with friends,” Eryse said. And when clubs meet, everyone comes, she said. They aren’t sidelined by having to get home or to a job or another class.
By 12:51, lunch is over. Everyone who lined up for lunch got through with time to spare. (Principal Whetsell has been known to roll up her sleeves and pitch in on the lunch lady side of the line to get all the students through.)
Dropping off lunch not easy
Still not everyone is a fan.
Jacqueline C. Hoang, a mother of six, says her eldest, a graduate of Wellington High, didn’t like the arrangement – but kept her dislike under wraps from her mom until her senior year.*
“She didn’t want to battle the lunch lines,” Hoang said. In Brittany’s senior year, the teen finally asked, “Mom, can you pack up some food for me?”
Once in a while, mom would drop off meals from CR Chicks and hand them off to her daughter at class change. “Now, with the Parkland situation, that’s not an option anymore.” The security after the shooting has made a casual lunch drop impossible.
While Brittany has headed for college, Hoang has two others in high school, a daughter at Wellington and son at Suncoast – both navigating one lunch period. Sometimes her son brings something for lunch, but not always. She said he bristles at the crowd and is daunted by the lunch line.
“He’s had breakfast at 5 o’clock. He starts school at 7:30. He doesn’t come to eat at home until quarter til 5,” Hoang said. She understands the arguments for the single lunch. “It makes sense, but at what price?”
By the time kids get to high school, considerably fewer buy lunch.
In the county’s elementary schools, about 65 percent of students buy lunch. By high school that falls to 33 percent – even though more than 60 percent qualify for free or discounted lunch through the federal meals program.
The seven schools that entertain one lunch period have smaller than average portions of students buying lunch. (Suncoast ranks tops among them with nearly a quarter of its students tapping the lunch line. Jupiter has the smallest share with just under 15 percent buying lunch.)
But these one-lunch schools also have fewer students who would seem to need it based on federal lunch program numbers.
And if you parse the numbers to look at how many buy lunch compared with how many are poor enough to qualify for a free or discounted one, five of the seven schools come close or beat the district average.
But Monbleau notes that every school that has gotten a new cafeteria and moved to multiple lunches has seen increased lunch participation.
The first day of school provided one case in point.
Boca Raton High School moved from one lunch to two this year. And on the first day the number of students going through the lunch line jumped by more than half from 280 lunches on the first day last year to 454. That took the lunch line buy rate from 7 percent to 13 percent.
Principal Susie King came to Boca Raton High as a dean 15 years. When she began, the school hosted two lunch periods. Her predecessor changed that to a single 43 minute one a few years ago.
“There are advantages to one lunch. It’s that set time where teachers can help student and also our clubs met during lunch. But those advantages didn’t outweigh the disadvantages of students not being able to get their lunch or having to bring their lunch,” said King, who is now managing two 35 minute lunches.
*An earlier version of this story inaccurately indicated Brittany Hoang attended Suncoast High.