- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 19, 2006

MALVERN, Pa.

Michelle Pagan, 14, was having lunch — not that she was ready for her peanut butter sandwich and bag of pretzels at 10:20 a.m.

“Am I hungry? Not really,” Michelle said during her lunch period at Great Valley High School in suburban Philadelphia. She might save the pretzels for later and won’t have “another whole meal, just snacks.”

Researchers at Penn State University fear that early lunches and single-food sales may contribute to bad eating habits.

In a survey of schools, they found that those with lunch periods starting at 10:30 a.m. or earlier have higher a la carte sales than those that have later lunches. The biggest sellers typically include pizza, burgers, cookies and pastries.

There are some healthy choices, like salads. But the problem is that many children are having to make do until supper, said Claudia Probart, a nutrition professor at Penn State.

“When this kind of lunch isn’t normal eating behavior, kids develop certain survival strategies through the rest of the day,” Miss Probart said.

Many students say they feel like they are grazing.

“A lot of kids joke that we eat like four to five meals a day,” said Mike Belleville, 18, Great Valley’s senior class president.

Others might stop at the neighborhood Wawa convenience store on the way home to buy a hoagie or chips, said student Seamus Hood, 18.

Miss Probart said so-called “grazing” could be beneficial for growing teens if they make the right food choices.

“But it’s pretty unlikely that they would be good choices,” she said. “What do they have access to after school? It’s only vending.”

She said the study didn’t analyze exactly what early-lunch students were buying, but “there is a lot of chip and soda eating going on.”

The Penn State researchers surveyed 228 high schools in Pennsylvania and found 55 had lunch periods that started at 10:30 a.m. or earlier.

About 35 percent of schools considered to have “high” a la carte sales had lunch periods of 10:30 a.m. or earlier, the survey showed.

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