A few years ago I asked the principal of a really awful middle school - where few seventh-graders could read at grade level and the "opportunity" class watched violent movies - to name his most important accomplishment.
He replied, "Feeding 1,100 students in 29 minutes."
I wanted to ask him: What's the rush? Why do children have to go home at 3 o'clock when their parents don't get off work until 5 o'clock?
Why not have a long, civilized lunch?
Since that conversation, I have visited dozens of schools in Texas, California and Maryland.
There is a dreary sameness to the cafeterias. They remind me of the cafeterias in jails.
School cafeterias are generally clean and efficient, but they are not inviting places where conversation can develop. They do not enable children to discover or develop what is finest in themselves.
Although most public school cafeterias are terribly noisy, the worst school lunch I've had was absolutely silent.
In 1984, when my son was a first-grader in Bryan, Texas, he invited me to his school for lunch.
There was a traffic light in the room, and it shone red throughout the lunch period, so nobody was allowed to talk.
A teacher later told me that the noise was too deafening if children talked at lunch, so they always left the light on red.
Unless we are training our children to be monks and nuns, silent meals serve no educational function.
It is generally accepted that American families do not eat together as much as they used to.
For this reason, it is more important than ever that school lunches become occasions for civilized conversation and behavior.
With a few changes, school lunch can be an important part of the curriculum and part of the long process of transmitting the best values to the next generation.
Wendy Costa is an educational coordinator at Mount Harmon Plantation in Earleville, Md., and helped found University High School on the California State University campus at Fresno. She served on the Bryan, Texas, school board from 1984 to 1990. This column first appeared in The Washington Post.