Barbarians eat into our lunch-break

During his undergraduate years at Oxford my dad was delegated to approach college authorities with a petition to reduce the length of the evening meal. The students apparently felt unduly constrained by spending 90 minutes of every evening sitting down to supper.

He and my godfather made their request to the elderly Bursar who, bemused, asked them how long they thought it should really take to consume a meal.

They made a quick calculation in their heads, doubled it for luck, and said "20 minutes". According to family legend, the Bursar growled a single, conversation-ending, word in disgust: "Barbaric!"

I often think fondly of that Bursar now, presumably, long dead. At my nine-year-old's school, the barbarians are no longer at the gates; they've taken over the lunch service. It's not just that the meals served in schools here are inedible, and even if they were edible, there'd be no time to eat them. Lunchtime is easy prey for the bean counters and cost cutters; no instruction goes on during lunch, but teachers must be paid to be on the premises and, in our cold Wisconsin winters, the rooms must be heated.

So the five to eight-year-old group has 15 minutes to wolf down their food (the older kids often have even less time). For many this is impossible, because they are excited about talking to their friends, and many eat slowly anyway; so teachers spend the afternoons trying to teach distracted, hungry children, whose state is not down to lack of food but to lack of time. A prohibition on talking to one's friends helped to get more food consumed, but at the cost of displacing the chatter into the classroom.

More troublingly, though no instruction is going on, lessons are being learned. Food is there to be swallowed (preferably whole), not appreciated.

Food is just a punctuation of the hard working day, not an occasion for socialising and friendship. That you eat, and eat quickly, seems to matter more than what you eat.

These may have been sensible lessons for our primitive ancestors whose lives were dominated by the quest for enough food. But our society faces the opposite challenge; how to manage our appetites in the face of plenty.

The lesson of fast silent eating gives cause for concern.

When I discussed this with a local school board member he harrumphed over his plate, claiming that children are so uncontrollable that the sooner we get them out of the lunchroom the better: a far cry from the crusty old Bursar's attitude that our job is to civilise them.

My local school district is not unusual in this respect; throughout the US "frills" such as reasonable lunch hours are being cut in the interests of costs and testable academic instruction. Cut the time away from the classroom during the day and you can cut the amount of time the kids are on the premises, with all the attendant savings.

There is a happy upside to this story, in the form of a punkish-looking teenager from the local high school on the wrong side of the tracks.

Much to the dismay of some of her peers, and inspired by Eric Schlosser's muckraking book attacking the junk food industry, Fast Food Nation, she has led a campaign to remove all fizzy drink and junk food dispensers from the school corridors, to improve the quality of school lunches, and to lengthen the time kids have available to eat. Her friends have won the first demand, and are working on the others.

School districts in Washington, Oregon, and California have already implemented healthy-lunch programmes in response to pupil and parent campaigns; I suspect our local campaign is destined for success.

I've generally supported my dad, Tim, in his educational battles, because I think he's usually (though not always) right. But this one, which happened before I was born, I'm glad he lost. I just wish that the crusty old Bursar who opposed him had won a wider-ranging, longer-lasting victory.

Harry Brighouse is professor of philosophy and affiliate professor of education policy studies at the University of Wisconsin

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