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The past two decades have brought with them more fundamental changes and innovations to education—including teaching procedures and standards, teaching methods, progress benchmarks, and much else—than any other 20-year period in human history.

Partly as a result of technological developments, partly as a result of a heightened awareness of the unique needs of students and the nuances of the learning process, the contemporary classroom is more precise, more focused, more demanding and, to be sure, more effective than past iterations.

While the changes, improvements, and outlook of the average classroom have been thoroughly explored and analyzed by countless experts, other components of education, which taken both as a whole and individually play a significant role in the student and educator experience, have received far less attention and focus. Rather than being indicative of an unwillingness to understand said other components of education, this reality is indicative of the fact that sweeping and in-depth changes have debuted in the classroom, and other changes to the school haven't received their due focus as a result.

The evolution of the cafeteria is a prominent example of one of the indicated changes.

An abundance of factors, including nutritionally conscientious parents, heightened federal guidelines, social trends, and many others have coordinated to create cafeterias that look, feel, and operate differently than those of the past.

By considering each of these factors individually, the future of the cafeteria—where it will go and how it will change—can be predicted. Significantly, while the cafeteria has once again fundamentally changed in recent years, it's important to note that this change is far from over. On the contrary, the aforementioned factors and additional factors yet, including the impact of research and studies, will further reinvent the cafeteria.

And by studying the cafeteria's present and likely future, teachers, administrators, and parents can become better prepared to take steps that foster success on the part of students.

Time is An Issue—for Teachers and Students

On an average school day, students receive 20 minutes or less to eat lunch. Variations in either direction—some lunch periods are slightly shorter, some are slightly longer—do appear, but generally, lunchtime has been reduced in length so as to provide additional minutes during the day to prepare students for standardized testing. The logic behind the decision to cut lunchtime in favor of extending class time was simple: More time in the classroom means more time learning.

That assumption is now being challenged by some parents, educators, administrators, and researchers.

Students who receive comparatively less time for lunch have been found to throw more food away—and to consume less food. The negative consequences of this point are dual-edged, according to critics. In the first place, they claim, reduced caloric intake as a result of time constraints means that students may not receive the energy they need to remain focused and attentive throughout the day—a point that may, as something of a paradox, negate the effects of the additional class time allowed for by shortened lunch periods. And in the second place, these critics have noted that federal guidelines focused on providing students with healthy and nutritional lunches do so under the assumption that students will have enough time to ingest the offered dishes.

To expand upon the points made by critics, statistical evidence supporting the idea that hunger affects understanding and focus is ample. To be sure, few persons would argue against the point—supporting research or not. Moreover, the aforementioned 20-minute lunch period, which is a general average, is often reduced by 25 to 50 percent in terms of actual dining time, or the number of minutes students have to eat after navigating to the cafeteria, waiting in line, and finding a table.

In America, the average adult lunchtime—at work, that is—lasts 39 minutes, or more than twice as long as the average school lunch. Only 56 percent of adults take lunch for less than 30 minutes, and they apparently benefit from a larger portion of this period than students do, as they don't have to wait in line. (Although venturing off the worksite to pick lunch up would admittedly be difficult, time-wise.)

Considering all this information, it can safely be stated that schools' average lunch duration will be scrutinized in the coming months and years. Whether or not large-scale changes come about remains to be seen, but it is certainly possible that an extra 10 or 20 minutes per day will benefit students—and their learning capabilities—in more ways than one. And in an era wherein every single teaching advantage is desired and sought out, it's imperative that possibilities such as this be considered, at the very least.

Changes to Menu Items

Changes to the types and styles of foods offered in school lunches have already appeared, and it seems likely that they will appear with increased frequency in the near future.

The federal government has long had a say in the nutritional standards of food served in schools, and according to some parents and students, an overemphasis on healthiness created something of a caloric deficiency in lunches.

Proponents of nutritionally balanced school lunches have acknowledged that there may be some truth to these concerns; the number of students who received lunch at school dropped as federal guidelines became more stringent. Some believed that the blame lay with those in charge of planning school lunches, who took federal health guidelines too far, while others believed that the issues were the guidelines themselves.

Recent deregulation has afforded schools more discretion in creating lunch menus, and it's expected that different—and perhaps more plentiful—meal options will be provided to students as a result. The long-term effects of this point should become clear in the cafeteria of the future, and in the interim, experts are confident that the way students eat will change significantly.

In-depth research will be required to determine the effects of changes to cafeterias' menu items on student health, focus, and learning.

As was noted initially, much has changed and is changing in education. The amount of significant alterations to teaching, learning, and the overall classroom in the last two decades is sizable, and the impact of these changes has been pronounced. Moreover, more changes yet are on the way, especially in educational spheres that haven't received as much attention and focus (such as the cafeteria).

With the observations and input of administrators, educators, students, parents, and staff, these imminent changes can be positive and fruitful, and in another decade, they may even produce large-scale improvements and benefits.

And only time will tell.

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