An open campus lunch is a policy that is typically set by a high school about how students can access the foods they eat during their meal in the middle of the day. These policies are usually set by either the school district board, a state board of education, or an oversight committee. Some principals are given the permission to set individual policies for specific schools, class years (junior, senior, etc.) or even individuals.
One such example of an open campus lunch policy exists in California. The Stockton Unified School District board offers detailed provisions to create an open campus, yet it also provides the school principal to close the campus if there are justifiable reasons to do so. Most policymakers include the superintendent of each district with the decision as well.
It is essential to remember that an open campus lunch or policy does not exist on its own in a vacuum. There must be community support, policy goals, and situational facts that are specific to that school or region that must be taken into consideration. Without these resources, the policies or laws which govern the situation can be ignored, rendered useless, or even become harmful to the students.
If your district is considering an open campus lunch, then here are the pros and cons that you will want to discuss with your elected officials and school administrators.
List of the Pros of Open Campus Lunch
1. It offers high-performing students an opportunity to experience a reward.
Many school districts use an open campus lunch policy as a way to reward their juniors and seniors who perform at an above average level. The students must sign themselves out of school when they leave, and then an honor system typically tracks their arrival back in class. Administrators can set the policy to be as strict as they want it to be, using GPA, attendance, and the overall standing of the individual as guidelines to grant this privilege. If you do not meet the qualifications, then you are eating lunch at the cafeteria.
2. It can be a way to teach students time management skills.
When there is an open lunch policy in place, then students must manage their time wisely when they leave their school to get something to eat. They must make it to the restaurant, fast food location, or grocery store with enough time to order and consume their food while also being able to return to their school to make it to the next class. This process requires an acknowledgement of finite time resources, how to manage them, and what it will take to create healthy results. Kids who are going to be entering the workforce soon or attending college must have these skills at-the-ready to be successfully anyway.
3. It can be used to take a breather from the stresses of the day.
Do not underestimate the stresses that are placed on high school students today. The pressure to succeed can be enormous. Not only does this element come from their parents, but it can also be in place from their teachers, guidance counselors, and the cliques that usually form in this educational environment. When students can take advantage of an open campus lunch, then they have a chance to escape these issues for a short time to enjoy a meal with their friends – or on their own if that is their preference.
4. It is a way to support local businesses that are in close proximity to the school.
When students can take advantage of an open campus lunch, then they can take advantage of what their local businesses offer if there is location close enough to the school. Although there is a stereotype that suggests teens will only go to fast food destinations if they are given the opportunity to leave during the midday break, sandwich shops, delicatessens, and grocery stores all benefit from student traffic during the lunch hour. Many of these small businesses see a tremendous drop in revenue during the summer months because their student traffic levels are so high.
5. It can be a way for some students to spend some extra time at home.
When there is an open campus lunch policy available to students that does not restrict their geographic location during this break, then individuals with transportation can take some time to help with family responsibilities or emergencies when they arise. They could run home to take care of a sick pet or let the dogs outside so that they can go to the bathroom. The student can make a lunch from what is available at home, run errands for their family to save time for everyone else, or just head off to a park somewhere to enjoy a few moments of quiet. This added flexibility makes it a lot easier for the students and their families to manage the rigors of modern life.
6. It can be a way for families to save some money.
Secondary school lunches for the Oak Harbor School District in Washington State for 2019 are listed at $3.20 per meal for students and $4.45 for adults. Although a student would likely pay more for their meal outside of the school, this is not always the case. Teens who live close to their high school could take advantage of prepackaged foods at home, leftovers from the night before, or other options to reduce the cost of this meal for their family.
The price might seem nice at first glimpse, but the cost of a school lunch for families who do not qualify for reduced pricing can be prohibitive. Imagine a family with three kids all in high school. Using the pricing from above, they will be spending $48 per week on the privilege of this midday meal. Assuming that there 180 educational days where this food is necessary, their parents would spend $1,728 on lunches throughout the year.
7. It creates an opportunity for students to learn real-life lessons.
Budgeting is one of the most crucial skills that students can learn before they move away to college or start working in their first job. You must know how to live within your means if you are going to stay out of debt and function independently. Giving teens a chance to make food choices away from campus with limited funds is one way to make this happen. Although it might cost more to eat away from school, having a specific amount to spend each day is a valuable lesson for students that will help them to learn the actual value of their monetary resources.
8. It offers students a chance to get some extra exercise during the day.
Students in high school go through long periods of sitting, followed by a mad scramble to grab their books and assignments for their next class. This design creates a lot of downtime that produces high levels of internal energy which needs a release somehow. Waiting for practice times in their preferred sport or the physical education class they have may not be suitable. By offering an open campus lunch policy, teens could get some extra exercise walking a few blocks to their preferred lunch destination each day.
When these students are able to release this pent-up energy, then it can reduce the temptation to cause mischief or all of the other ways that bored students try to entertain themselves during the day.
9. It offers students a chance to prove why adults can trust them.
Trust is always a two-way street, so it is essential that parents and teens keep it as free of obstacles as possible. Although a majority of kids between the ages of 13-17 say that their parents, guardians, or other adults in their lives say that they get the trust they deserve, 1 in 5 kids say that they feel like they’re not trusted as much as they should be. Offering students access to an open campus lunch policy puts the “ball in their court,” so to speak. By allowing teens to prove that they can be responsible with their time, money, and eating choices, it gives these kids an opportunity to add more trust to their important relationships.
10. It provides students with an opportunity to find better quality food items.
One of the biggest disadvantages often discussed with an open campus lunch policy is the quality of the food that the students choose to eat. According to the National Education Association, there is a reason to question how good the food is at the cafeteria as well. USA Today investigated the items served to students at schools, and then compared them to what fast-food chains provide on their menu. Their conclusion was that the quick-service restaurants had higher safety and quality standards for the meat being served than what schools implement through the National School Lunch Program.
This issue was highlighted by a salmonella recall of ground beef from a meat-packing plant in 2009. Even though grocery stores and restaurants could not serve food items that had been shipped from the facility, the items going to American schools were still authorized for use. If it is not safe for the general public to eat these items, then how can it be appropriate for students to be eating the same things?
11. It allows students with specific dietary needs to have their needs met.
There are students with food allergies, sensitivities, and restrictions that may not be able to eat the dishes coming out of the school cafeteria as it stands now. Many schools do not have cross-contamination policies in place that limit the spread of gluten, peanuts, or the other major allergies that teens may have. By allowing them to eat off-campus, it gives each student an opportunity to meet the specific requirements of their health without placing themselves or the school at risk of an adverse event happening because of an accidental contamination. Even when the medical record of a student is updated and current, this information is not always communicated to the appropriate individuals. An open campus lunch policy allows students to make their own choices instead of allowing a potentially uninformed provider to make it for them.
List of the Cons of Open Campus Lunch
1. It can place the lives of students at risk while they travel.
The West Hempstead School District in Nassau, NY, once had an open campus lunch policy which allowed students to walk to local businesses to get something to eat instead of staying for their meal at the cafeteria. There were two students killed in an automotive accident while taking advantage of their off-campus privileges, which caused the local board to shutter this idea for the rest of their 2,600 students in the district. Accident rates for students over the lunch hour are significantly higher for teens where an open lunch policy exists.
2. It may not offer students a lunch that meets nutritional guidelines.
There is a definite benefit to consider when students can choose their own food items when they want to eat lunch. These teens will need to be responsible for their eating habits in the next year or two anyway. While they are still juniors and seniors, many of these kids are still under the age of 18 – which means their parents and school administrators are responsible to some extent for their health. Allowing students to go off-campus to find something to eat could create a situation where the lunch they choose does not meet the nutritional guidelines that are sometimes mandated by law.
Although some students do make healthy choices, a study that the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity published found that teens attending a school with an open campus lunch were much more likely to have a meal at a quick-service restaurant than students who attended classes in a district with a closed campus.
3. It could reduce the number of fruits and vegetables that students consume.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has published data which suggests that students who participate in the National School Lunch Program are more likely to consume a well-rounded diet that includes fruits and vegetables compared to the teens who can choose their own establishments for the midday meal every day.
4. It increases the risk of truancy, tardiness, or skipping.
When the weather is beautiful and you are outside, then it is very tempting to stay away from the office. Students go through the same temptation. The only difference between you and them is that the teenage brain is wired a little differently. These kids are prone to decisions that tend to be impulsive and self-gratifying in the moment instead of thinking about the long-term consequences of their actions. An open campus lunch increases the risk that students will become truant. It can also lead to higher levels of tardiness for classes around the lunch hour. Some students will even decide to skip their next class because it is more fun to be outside than it is to be indoors studying literature under fluorescent lighting.
5. It creates an opportunity for students to make poor, unsupervised choices.
Because teens do act impulsively, having the freedom to do essentially whatever they want may create problematic situations for the kids taking advantage of an open campus lunch. Those who are above the age of 18 could use this time as an opportunity to purchase cigarettes and smoke. Alcohol consumption could become part of the daily routine for some students. Taking illegal drugs is another possibility. Although a vast majority of students use this time to find something they want to eat, there are always a few in that group who will use their free period to cause trouble in some way.
6. It costs more to eat off-campus than it does to have a school lunch.
Parents are going to spend significantly more on lunch costs if their students take advantage of an open campus policy every day. Unless a student goes to their local grocery store to purchase items that they can craft into a meal personally, the average person will spend almost double buying something away from the school compared to the cost of eating what is available in the school cafeteria. That $1,700 for a family with three teens would quickly balloon into approximately $4,000 per year if each student had lunch at a local restaurant or quick-service destination during the day.
7. It may cause some students to bring back food items that become a distraction in the classroom.
When students have their lunch in the school cafeteria, then they are generally not permitted to take food items to their next class. Medical issues may create an exception to this rule, but in-class snacks are usually prohibited. Although this rule also applies to food items that are brought back from an off-campus meal, it would be illogical to assume that students do not carry items with them throughout the day in case they get hungry. Fast food items have addictive qualities to them, which even includes their smell. Students may find themselves distracted by these off-campus items, eventually creating a negative impact on their learning process.
8. It creates a safety risk for the school campus.
When students are permitted to leave their school because of an open campus lunch policy, the freedom that they are given works in both directions. If a teen experienced bullying during the morning sessions or felt like they were threatened, then they could use this opportunity to go home to grab a weapon that they could bring back after the end of the lunch hour. Even with security screening procedures in place, it is possible for these items to be missed. The student could then act impulsively to hurt themselves or someone else.
A Final Thought About Open Campus Lunch Policies
More than half of the children in the United States who are in school today are on track to be classified as medically obese by the time they reach the age of 35. Sugary drinks at school could be contributing to this potential epidemic. A single carton of flavored mil will add up to 4 teaspoons of sugar to the daily diet of a child.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue argued in late 2018 that providing nutritious lunches in school was a needless cost. “It doesn’t do any good to serve nutritious meals if they wind up in the trash can,” he said in November on a post on the USDA website.
The reality of school lunches is that they may not meet the specific health needs of some students. There are times when teens could make better, more nutritious choices outside of the cafeteria. Even if they only bring a sack lunch that they eat somewhere off-campus, the benefits of this policy can come to light.
The pros and cons of an open campus lunch attempt to balance the benefits of personal freedom and time management responsibilities with the need for continued oversight. Some students will definitely benefit from this policy, while it could also be detrimental to others. That is why each district, along with each set of school administrators, are often given the task of deciding what they think is best for their students. If there are restrictions involved that allow the most mature teens to enjoy this privilege, it generally works out well for all of the parties involved.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.