A group of students at Old Orchard Beach High School talk after eating lunch on Thursday. Lunchtime lasts 30 minutes, but Principal John Suttie said it’s too long and they’re considering shortening the period to 20 minutes. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

OLD ORCHARD BEACH — Fifteen minutes into the first half-hour lunch period Thursday at Old Orchard Beach High School, the noise level began to rise.

Some students who sat and chatted with their schoolmates said they appreciate getting the break from class and not having to scarf down their meals. But as Principal John Suttie scanned the cafeteria for flying food, he said in the time between when they’re done eating and the bell rings, their behavior worsens.

Those are among the arguments for and against a bill before the Maine Legislature that would mandate 30-minute lunch periods for the state’s K-12 students. Staff members at Old Orchard Beach High School are among those who think a half-hour is too long and are even considering cutting back lunch breaks.

“We have really nice, well-behaved kids,” said Suttie, who is also superintendent of RSU 23. “But they’re still 14- to 18-year-olds. Keeping them engaged in one activity for a long period of time, it makes it sort of difficult for them, and it’s not in their best interests.”

Suttie said Old Orchard’s middle and elementary schools have 25-minute lunch periods, which work just right for those students. He said the high school plans to decide in about a month whether it will reduce its lunch breaks to 20 minutes starting next year.

Meanwhile, lawmakers will be debating whether to make half-hour lunch periods the norm statewide, though schools that can show the extra time would cause logistical problems would be allowed to opt out of the proposed mandate.


Advocates of the bill say the kids need the extra time to eat healthfully, without hurrying through their meals or throwing food out in a rush to get to recess. Critics say lengthening lunch breaks could create a scheduling nightmare in some schools.

“I do see both sides to the issue, and how difficult it might be to work an extra 10 minutes into an already tightly scheduled school day,” said Kris Lindsey, a Yarmouth-based registered dietician with Mainely Nutrition. “But looking at it from a wellness perspective, that extra 10 minutes might make or break it for some kids in terms of getting enough nutrition in to be able to have a brain that’s receptive to learning. A hungry body doesn’t learn well.”


Suttie stood at the front of the school’s cafeteria during Thursday’s 11 a.m. lunch period. Old Orchard Beach High School has had 30-minute lunch periods – two each day, with the school’s roughly 200 students evenly split between them – for nine years now, he said.

Old Orchard Beach High School cook Kimberly Lamarre serves a tray of food to freshman Andy Kulenduka on Thursday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Lunch lines here are relatively short and move quickly, with students receiving their food within five minutes at most. “Our kids are done eating and ready to move in 20 minutes,” Suttie said. “We have a lot of stuff occur in the last 10 minutes of lunch now that could be avoided.”

Students sometimes get a little rowdy in the second half of the lunch break, Suttie said, and at 11:15, as if on cue, the noise level in the room rose slightly. By 11:20, most of the kids looked to be done with their food.


Suttie said a full half-hour lunch “sets some kids up to fail. They’ve got 10 minutes of extra, unstructured time. And some of the kids, they’re good but they don’t have the ability to sit still and wait for the bell to ring, so they start fidgeting. And a lot of food items – especially raw vegetables – turn into projectiles.” Soon, his point was proven.

“Here we go,” he said, after one student threw something at another. He pointed at the offending student, who stopped immediately, and the lunch break continued without further issues.

“I find it’s pretty quiet in here most of the time,” said junior Reid MacNair, who sat chatting with some underclassmen. “It doesn’t get super rowdy. That happened a lot in middle school, but here, everyone’s pretty laid back.”

Students at Old Orchard Beach High School check their phones after eating lunch on Thursday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

MacNair said he likes that the 30-minute lunch gives him an opportunity to meet with teachers if he needs, or with others – like the younger students – whom he doesn’t get to connect with in classes.

“Thirty minutes gives us more time to eat and socialize,” junior Kailee Morin said. “If it were 20 minutes, I just wouldn’t have enough time. I like a little break between classes.”

“With 30 minutes, we don’t feel rushed,” junior Sarah Davis said.


“When people don’t have as much time to eat, there’s going to be food waste, and we don’t do compost here,” added her tablemate, senior Drisana Barna. “It’s also not good for your body to eat that fast.”

Suttie said that pre-COVID-19, Old Orchard Beach High students had the option of hanging in the gym after lunch or going outside to burn off excess energy. Since the pandemic, though, the school schedule changed so that the gym is needed during lunch, and Suttie said the school doesn’t have quite enough staff anymore to adequately monitor students outdoors.


“If schools are really considering what works best for kids, they should consider having recess before lunch,” said Karen Mountjoy, registered dietician at Coastal Family Nutrition in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and a former special education teacher. “It builds appetite, and some kids benefit greatly from burning off excess energy first.”

Mountjoy said she’s also concerned about kids who find themselves at the end of long, slow lunch lines who then must race the clock to finish their meals before lunch period ends.

“Lunch is one of the very few times in the school day where kids get a chance to just relax and enjoy their friends,” said Mountjoy, noting that she sometimes hears from teens who don’t even bother getting lunch “because waiting in line for lunch takes up half their lunch period, and they’d rather just be with their friends.”


“Lunch does have to be prioritized if the goal is to promote a healthy learning environment, and that includes prioritizing kids at the end of the line who may only have five minutes to eat,” said Lindsey, the Yarmouth dietician.

“We don’t want to be creating a bunch of people who only know how to speed eat,” agreed Rockport-based registered dietitian nutritionist Sarah Skovran. “From a nutrition perspective, I’m all for a 30-minute lunch.” Still, Skovran also said she’s aware that scheduling longer lunches may present major challenges at some schools.

Old Orchard Beach High School senior Jossolyn Budesheim empties her tray into a garbage pail after lunch on Thursday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“Most teachers and school administrators I’ve talked to know it’s a problem,” Skovran said. “But if it were an easy fix, they’d have fixed it already.”

Suttie said Old Orchard Beach High School might be able to reach a compromise of 25 minutes for lunch. The district will make a final decision later this month, but Suttie didn’t seem overly concerned about opposition to the change from his students.

“Of course, they’re going to say they want to keep it 30 minutes,” he said. “But they’ll also laugh when we tell them why we’re cutting back the time. They know.”

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