Does a ‘balanced’ school lunch structure mean unhealthier eating?

By Tim Alamenciak - Published on September 10, 2015
The Balanced School Day lets kids have two eating periods, but some researchers warn that could lead to more unhealthy eating.

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For many elementary students in Ontario, lunch is an outdated concept.

Gone are the two 15-minute recesses and 60-minute lunch break. Instead many students are given two break periods throughout the day — one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Each normally consists of 20 minutes for eating and 25 minutes for activities.

It’s called the Balanced School Day. Advocates say it increases uninterrupted learning time, wastes less time in transitioning from indoors to outdoors and facilitates better time management for teachers.

But researchers are discovering that the balanced school day may negatively affect nutrition. For some parents, two chances to eat means packing double the food.

“If you do the grocery shopping, you would know that there's a lot of packaged snacks and things that are out there that are easy for parents to pack in kids lunches, so they're getting two of those instead of one,” says Paula Dworatzek, an associate professor at the University of Western Ontario’s division of food and nutritional sciences at Brescia University College. “Sometimes the snack is a relatively healthy snack, but sometimes it's not. It means they might be getting two drinks and if they're healthy drinks, that's good but if they're not, then that's a problem.”

It’s unclear just how widespread the adoption of the Balanced School Day is — the province’s Ministry of Education doesn’t keep track as the decision of a daily schedule rests with the school and school board. The schedule was first implemented in Ontario in 2000 and has spread as a grassroots initiative since. A study published in the Journal of School Health in 2015 estimated more than 1,000 of the province’s schools have switched to some form of the balanced school day approach.

That study, titled “Is the Balanced School Day Truly Balanced?” by Dworatzek and other nutrition experts, concludes that more information on the dietary implications is needed before widespread adoption.

“There is limited or inconclusive evidence regarding how this schedule change affects children’s eating patterns, caloric and nutritional intake, activity levels, and overall nutritional and physical health,” wrote the authors. It recommends more analysis of the school day structure.

“The impact it could have on eating habits is quite drastic because you're not now eating breakfast, lunch and dinner, you're eating breakfast, first lunch, second lunch and dinner. It could potentially have a big impact and yet the studies that were done preliminarily did not have adequate assessment to how this would affect food intake,” says Dworatzek.

In the case of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, 93 per cent of its elementary schools are on some variant of the balanced day schedule. At Guy Brown Elementary School, for example, the first break consists of 20 minutes for eating and 20 minutes for activities, while the second break consists of 20 minutes of eating and 30 minutes of activities, to allow students more time if they choose to go home for the afternoon break.

Manny Figueiredo, the board’s director of education and principal at Guy Brown from 2004 to 2006, says his staff noticed a decrease in schoolyard litter thanks to the schedule shift as kids weren’t eating snacks while outside. He said regardless of the schedule, healthy eating comes down to working with parents.

“There are so many variables. One of the things we looked at is how do we continue to educate and work with parents around what are healthy choices,” says Figueiredo. “But at the end of the day parents have the ultimate choice of what they pack.”

Sue Continelli has been teaching for 24 years and working with the Balanced School Day system for about 10 years. She currently teaches physical education and health to Grade 1, 2 and 3 children at Senator Gibson Public School in Beamsville, Ont.

She says that, in the end, the new system gives her more opportunities to help kids understand the importance of nutrition.

“Over the years they've adjusted to the balanced day,” says Continelli. “It wasn't smooth at first — we would very much get a lot of sugary snacks in their lunches — but it's this education process through newsletters and conversations with parents, one-on-ones with the kids, that you see that start to improve.”

“It has to be a partnership. The school and the home have to be working in tandem.”

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