Students in line for the cafeteria at ETHS. (Bennett Fink photo)

Chuck Berry got it right, about school lunch:

“You’re lucky if you can find a seat/”You’re fortunate if you have time to eat.” (“School Day,” Chess Records, 1957).

The rock & roll legend wrote of high school cafeteria reality more than 60 years ago. School lunch is not a leisurely meal. Rather, it’s a refueling stop between, say, English and math.

And now, COVID-19 has made things worse. Longer lines waiting to get in, and fewer places to sit, due to social distancing.

Plus, at Evanston Township High School, the shift to block scheduling (longer class periods) has impacted when students can eat at one of the building’s four lunch rooms, potentially making meal time even more of an “eat and run” experience.

In December, ETHS senior Bennett Fink told Evanston Now that there were “insane lines,” and students often had only 15 minutes to eat “shoulder to shoulder, back to back” during what was supposed to be a 45 minute lunch period. Fifteen minutes, that is, if they could get their food and sit down.

“I’ve seen kids eating in the hall, in their classes. I’ve yet to meet someone who does not think it’s a problem,” he added. He complained to the administration.

ETHS has taken steps this semester trying to reduce overcrowding and give the school’s 3,700 students more time to eat, and get in a few minutes of relaxation.

There is now has a Lunch Dashboard, which students can access on their Chromebooks.

The Dashboard (in pinciple, like those downtown parking garage signs which say how many spaces are available) “enables students to check which lunch locations are open or closed on a given academic day,” and also notes which ones are full, according to District 202 spokesperson Takumi Iseda.

ETHS has also added additional lunch sites, such as Beardsley gym. “Using additional large spaces,” Iseda said, “helps support distancing during lunch blocks.”

The school has also expanded the “open campus” concept, where students can leave the building for lunch. Seniors and juniors already had that privilege. Now, freshmen and sophomores have it as well.

Students can also eat outdoors, but that has its limits in an Evanston winter.

Every lunch decision has a COVID overlay, making things a challenge. In a website message, ETHS said “as an additional mitigation layer, students will not be able to order food for delivery to ETHS until further notice.”

But never underestimate the entrepreneurial spirit. Fink said he’s seen a student selling snacks and drinks out of her locker.

And while the lunch crunch for space has received a lot of attention, and the school has opened up more locations and is letting everyone leave campus to eat, Fink said there is still a long way to go.

Since last Monday, he explained, “I have not had a place to eat lunch four times.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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