Mandatory midday lunch periods have replaced optional end-of-day chow times at St. Petersburg, Lakewood, Dunedin and Tarpon Springs high schools.
Officials who launched the end-of-day high school lunch program in 2003 had touted it as a way to maximize instructional time, improve student achievement and reduce disciplinary problems. At its peak, nine of the Pinellas district's 16 high schools adopted the optional end-of-day lunch.
Pinellas superintendent John Stewart has reversed the trend, saying most students didn't — or couldn't — eat lunch after school, shortchanging their nutritional needs.
Five high schools had already returned to an early lunch. Now all Pinellas high school students have a midday lunch period.
"A lot of our students weren't eating, and they were going from breakfast at 7 in the morning till 1:30 waiting for lunch," said Jane Niles, St. Petersburg High cafeteria manager. "That's an awful long time to go without eating."
District food services director Art Dunham noted: "Students can't learn when they're hungry."
Schools that chose the late lunch had provided a 15-minute midmorning break so students could buy healthy snacks on campus. But officials say that many students either didn't have the time or couldn't afford snacks.
Then, in their rush to after-school jobs, extracurricular activities, the beach or home, many skipped the optional lunch. That meant students were also missing out on an initiative Pinellas implemented last year to provide a buffet of fruits and veggies under a new federal directive.
"I would say 10 percent (of the students) were eating with us," Dunham said.
In January, the Florida Association of District School Superintendents released the results of a study requested by Stewart to evaluate organization and management in Pinellas schools. The study noted that the time between school arrival and lunch seemed "extraordinarily long" and urged the district to make a change.
Stewart said, though, he was more motivated by a March letter from Dr. David Cimino, who heads the School Health Advisory Committee. The group urged a return to traditional lunch schedules to ensure proper nutrition.
"When a doctor who is head of your advisory committee advises you to do something," Stewart said, "that's a pretty weighty resource."
At Stewart's request, schools have simply extended the snack break into a 30-minute lunch period, adding roughly 20 minutes to the school day.
"With going back to middle of the day, we expect numbers (of participants) to go back up to the 600 or 700 mark," Dunham said. "The more people we feed, the more money the federal government provides us. Because more people will eat with us and more of them will be the subsidized child, we'll be able to hire more people and buy more food."
The new lunch schedule has received mixed reviews.
At Dunedin High, most students who spoke with the Times last week said they preferred the old schedule because they used the extra minutes to meet with teachers or start homework before heading to extracurricular activities. Some said they preferred fast food or home-cooked meals to the school menu.
"Getting out a little bit earlier is nice, too," said 15-year-old sophomore Bailey Morgan.
But a few said there were perks to the new midday schedule.
"It's more time to spend with friends," said Courtney Barker, also 15 and in 10th grade. Also, "eating in the middle of the day seems to give people a lot more energy to make it all the way through the end and pay attention."
Lakewood High principal Robert Vicari said his students were also split. Some liked that the end-of-day lunch period had allowed them to work after school.
Stewart said he has seen no evidence "whatsoever" that the late lunch period boosted student achievement.
So far, Stewart said, a few St. Petersburg High students and teachers have been the only ones to complain in the form of emails or appeals to School Board members.
"But I thought it was worth a try to go back to the old traditional way and make it work," he said.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (727) 445-4153 or on Twitter @KeyonnaSummers.