New open lunch policy at Columbia high schools draws support, criticism

Wednesday, February 6, 2013 | 5:31 p.m. CST; updated 11:45 a.m. CST, Thursday, February 7, 2013

COLUMBIA — A new open lunch policy scheduled to take effect next fall at Columbia high schools will be reviewed after the 2013-14 school year ends. 

Right now, 10th- through 12th-graders at Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools can leave school grounds during their assigned lunch periods. Douglass High School, an alternative high school, has ninth- through 12th-graders and allows students in all four grades to leave for lunch.

But that will change in the fall with the opening of Battle High School and the district-wide addition of ninth-graders to Hickman and Rock Bridge. Starting in August, only juniors and seniors may leave school grounds for lunch.

The policy was revised based on a community survey and input from the four high school principals, student leadership groups and the district’s Office of Nutrition Services.

A district survey conducted in October 2012 about lunchtime policies drew responses from about 550 students and 950 parents and community members. It showed that 74 percent of the parent and community respondents said their biggest concern about open lunch was traffic safety. The survey also showed 71 percent of parents were worried about their child getting back to class on time.

"There is a concern from the community and parents about open lunch," Rock Bridge principal Mark Maus said. "A piece of this is balancing what the community and parents want with what the students want."

The Columbia School Board did not need to vote on the policy change. It was presented to the board at its Jan. 14 meeting but was eclipsed by public discussion of school start times. No further discussion on the plan is scheduled, but it will be reviewed annually, said Jolene Yoakum, assistant superintendent for secondary education.

Yoakum said that because incoming freshman and sophomores have not had open lunch before, this fall was an opportune time to reconsider the policy.

Yoakum also cited concerns about student safety. Some parents were worried about students riding in other students' cars during lunchtime and others were wary of traffic safety. 

Allowing juniors and seniors, who are more likely to drive, to leave for lunch means fewer students would have to walk to get food. At Hickman, students who walk have to cross either Business Loop 70 or Providence Road. At Battle, in northeast Columbia, few restaurants are within walking distance.

The district is considering bringing in outside food vendors to provide more food choices on campus, Yoakum said. Any vendors would be required to meet national nutrition guidelines.

"We’re very limited by the size our cafeteria," Maus said. "With the proper facilities, our options would meet the demands of the students."

Yoakum said another possibility is using a food truck that would travel among the high schools, thus bypassing the facilities problem.

Some students object to the change and have said they will continue to challenge it.

"The three high schools have completely different surroundings and cultures," Hickman sophomore Kadie Elmore said, referring to Hickman, Rock Bridge and Battle. "A uniform policy should not be mandated by the board."

Students’ Say, a district-wide student advocacy group that spoke out against proposed earlier start times for high schools, will continue to challenge the policy change.

"We are going to continue fighting it because we think that something like open lunch should be a school-by-school decision instead of a large district-wide decision," said Jilly Dos Santos, founder of Students’ Say and a Rock Bridge sophomore.

Elmore, also a member of Students' Say, said she thinks Hickman sophomores who maintain good standing in the school’s Kewpie Incentive Card program should have open lunch.

"This would still be more strict than the current program," Elmore said. "KIC cardholders maintain good grades and deserve the chance to have open lunch because they can handle the extra responsibilities."  

Yoakum said this is one of those decisions best made at the district level. "We want to be consistent across all of our schools so that we’re offering equal opportunities at all our locations," she said.

Maus said it will be interesting to see how this works out .

"I don’t want us ever making decisions because we’re worried something may happen," Maus said. "I want us making decisions on what we believe is best for our kids."

The embeded document was part of a presentation to the school board on Jan. 14.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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