Advocates urged lawmakers Wednesday to pass a bill mandating 30-minute lunch periods for Maine’s K-12 students, saying schools that provide 20 minutes or less are not giving students enough time to eat and are contributing to food waste.

And, they said, downing a nutritious meal in 20 minutes has gotten even more challenging now that school lunches are free in Maine and more students are lining up for cafeteria meals.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Janice Dodge, D-Belfast, has raised logistical concerns among some school administrators but has an opt-out clause for districts that can show that switching to a longer lunch period would be difficult.

Anna Korsen, advocacy and implementation director for Full Plates Full Potential, a nonprofit that advocates for ending childhood hunger, said that making school lunch free for everyone benefits students, but the state’s move has unintended consequences. About 16% more students are eating the school lunch this school year, according to the Maine Department of Education.

“Maine’s historic law to feed every child at school at no cost has helped to reduce the stigma around school meals, resulting in more students eating,” Korsen testified before the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs on Wednesday. “This also means longer lunch lines. Now that meals are free for all students, we must work to make sure they have enough time to actually eat them.”

According to a December 2021 survey by the Maine DOE of 87 administrators, 21% of elementary schools had lunch breaks of 20 minutes or shorter, and 22% of high schools and 36% of middle schools had short lunch periods. Roughly one-third of school lunches in Maine were 26-30 minutes long, according to survey respondents.


Korsen said elementary schools and middle schools should hold recess before rather than after lunch, so students don’t race through their lunches and throw food away to get to recess.

A survey conducted by Full Plates this school year found that 77% of 101 students surveyed said they did not have enough time to eat lunch.

Ryan Parker, Maine impact and partnerships lead for FoodCorps, which advocates for reducing food waste, said that an analysis of several Maine schools for which he did consulting work shows that while the first student in line typically has 14 minutes to eat lunch, the last student in line has only three minutes.

Parker said that has led to students near the back of the line throwing food away, some trying to hurriedly finish their lunch as they take their trays to the trash. He said he’s witnessed students throwing away half-eaten food that would have been eaten had there been enough time.

But there are some logistical issues to making lunch 30 minutes for all schools, said Holly Blair, executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association’s professional division.

Blair said that there are several logistical issues to consider, including that some schools have combination cafeteria/gymnasiums, requiring setup and take-down times that schools with separate cafeterias don’t have to deal with. Some schools with large student populations would have to start serving lunch at 10:30 a.m. if they gave everyone a 30-minute lunch.


And at some schools, 30 minutes is too long, and staff have to handle behavioral problems during the last 10 minutes of lunch.

“We should trust the professionals putting the schedules together to best meet the needs of their kids,” Blair said.

Dodge said the bill is set up to make it relatively easy to opt out of the 30-minute requirement. All a school district has to do is list the reasons that 30-minute lunches would be impractical, and host a public hearing.

The bill is expected to be discussed further in committee in the coming weeks.

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