There's generally less junk food available in schools these days. Vending machines offer healthier snacks, and lunchrooms are being encouraged to cook more nutritious meals.
But research is showing that getting kids to eat healthier at school isn't just about what they eat, - but when. Colorado Public Radio Health Reporter Eric Whitney has more.

Whitney: When Stacey Holben started teaching elementary school seven years ago, one of the toughest parts of her day was trying to get kids back on track to learn in the afternoon. Holben was used to dismissing her kids for lunch, and then they'd go to recess.

SOUND: rowdy kids on playground

Whitney: - then her students would come bouncing back into the classroom. Holben had a word for the post-recess classroom environment:

Holben: Chaos. Just a lot of bodies moving, and toward the end of the day they're exhausted because they haven't eaten anything all day because their lunches went in the garbage.

Whitney: Their lunches went in the garbage because her rambunctious first graders, who'd been cooped up in a classroom all morning, couldn't wait to get out on the playground.

It seemed backwards. Why not let the kids play first, then eat?

Laurel Elementary School in Ft. Collins tried that a couple of years ago. Tommie Sue Cox is the principal.

Cox: it just really makes sense. It should have been this way for years, absolutely.

Whitney: Cox and Holben aren't the only ones who think kids pay better attention in class if they have recess before lunch instead of after.

Lee: there's definitely research to back that up, too.

Whitney: Sara Lee is a researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Lee: there have been a couple of studies that showed a reduction in student discipline referrals.

Whitney: And that thing about kids tossing their lunches in the garbage to get to the playground faster? There's science to back that up, too.

Lee: there was kind of a little surge of studies that showed some nice results about students actually consuming more food once they've had recess.

Whitney: Kids eating more of their school lunches means they're getting more nutrition. That's important in Colorado, where nearly 40% of all school kids are eligible for free or reduced price school lunches, because their families are too poor to guarantee they get nutritious meals at home.
Healthy eating advocate Maren Stewart is encouraging more schools to switch to recess before lunch.

Stewart: it is gaining popularity in many school districts throughout Colorado. We know that recess before lunch is occurring in Ft. Collins and Loveland, Pueblo, Bent county and Denver.

Whitney: Stewart works for LiveWell Colorado, the big non-profit that's trying to get Colorado kids to eat better and be more physically active. LiveWell thinks the recess before lunch strategy is a winner because it's something schools can do for virtually no cost. But Stewart says that still doesn't mean it can be done at the drop of a hat.

Stewart: in order for them to incorporate this they do need to, obviously, re-schedule their day. And while this doesn't take any additional time during the school day, it does take additional time and energy on the part of the administration to simply re-arrange the schedule. So I think there is some hesitancy to do that just because schools are pulled in so many directions right now.

SOUND: Kids entering classroom

Whitney: Back in first grade teacher Stacey Holben's classroom, kids come back to their desks after lunch. She says the time and effort it takes to re-arrange school schedules so kids can have recess before lunch is worth it.

Holben: oh completely, yep. The kids they come back, all their energy's out, and they actually eat their lunch instead of throwing their lunch away, and then they're ready to learn after they eat. So I've seen it make a difference.

Whitney: LiveWell is asking schools in 22 Colorado communities so far about adopting a recess before lunch schedule. In Pueblo, a school district that's implemented it successfully is now acting as a mentor for other schools to help them make the switch.