Waiting for a 6 p.m. dinner can seem like an eternity when your last meal was a couple of hours before noon.
While lunch in Hamilton County Schools has for years started at about 10:45 a.m., students are eating earlier and earlier as jam-packed schedules put cafeteria time at a premium.
"We're done with lunch at 12:20 and we have four lunch periods; it takes two hours for us to feed all of our students," said Tom McCullough, principal of Signal Mountain Middle-High School, where the first lunch starts at 10:20 a.m. "If we started at 11:20, we wouldn't be done until 1:20 and school is out at 2:15."
And students say that since classes begin at 7:15 a.m., 10:20 a.m. is an appropriate time for a midday meal.
"The way that our time is when school starts, it's kind of in the middle. So it's kind of like our 12 o'clock," said eighth-grader Erica O'Kane.
Lunch starts even earlier at East Hamilton School - about 9:45 a.m. The school added about 350 new students this year and administrators have been forced to shuttle kids through the lunch line every 20 minutes.
Because the dining hall was not built to accommodate East Hamilton's student body of nearly 2,000, teachers and students must adhere to a very strict schedule.
"If any (lunch group) is off even by two minutes, we have a complete jam of students moving in and out, which backs up lunch," said principal Pam Dantzler.
Despite the tight schedule, high school PE teacher Gerald Jones said he doesn't really mind eating lunch at a quarter to 10.
"I'm up at 4:30 a.m. anyway to work out, so I'm ready to eat by 9:45," he said.
Students in Signal Mountain's 10:20 a.m. lunch agree.
"I get up at 5:30 a.m. and eat breakfast at 5:45 a.m., so I'm hungry," said 14-year-old Stephen Heinichen. "Most people are excited when they have first lunch and disappointed if they have second lunch."
For her senior year at Soddy-Daisy High School, Catherine Albrecht's scheduled lunch starts at 10:40 a.m., which she says is far too early.
"By the time school gets done, I'm starving, so we stop somewhere like Sonic or Subway and eat a small dinner, and then I'm not really hungry later when my mom cooks dinner. And I'm hungry again at 10 o'clock," she said. "It really messes up your eating schedule."
Nutritionist Dee Harwell, who works for the school system's coordinated school health department, said she doesn't see any alternatives to the early lunch, but admits it presents some potentially dangerous eating habits.
"The biggest thing is, when you eat earlier like that, it just leads to snacking later in the day," she said. "If you don't plan, you're more likely to eat unhealthy snacks due to what's available."
The silver lining, she said, is the opportunity to teach kids about healthy snacking.
"Kids typically pick potato chips and candy," she said. "But a lot of people snack in the afternoon. ... It can be an opportunity to increase kids consumption of fruits and vegetables."
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