MALVERN, Pa. – While many office workers were taking their coffee breaks, 14-year-old Michelle Pagan 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," Pagan 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, too. But the problem is that many children are having to make do until dinner, 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," Probart said.
Many students say they feel like they're 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.
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 kids 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.
Often, schools that have early lunches are overcrowded or in the midst of renovations, the researchers said. The latter is the situation at Great Valley, which has started lunch at 10:20 a.m. the past couple of years.
Amanda Lomax, 15, doesn't mind since she eats breakfast around 6 a.m. Sitting next to her, friend Lena Nie, 15, raced through her meal.
"I don't have breakfast," she said. "Why do you think I'm so hungry all the time?"
At State College High School in central Pennsylvania, food service manager Megan Schaper said she switches to a breakfast-style menu on days when lunchtime is bumped up even earlier than the normal 10:47 a.m. slot.
Regardless, she knows that fast-food and convenience store items are irresistible lures for teens, no matter what time they eat.
"The way to fight it is you make sure that you have a lunch that is fresh and good and competitively priced," she said.