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Though they face no threat of pop quizzes and have no homework due, the 35-minute lunch period at El Camino Junior High might be the most daunting time of day.

Roughly 400 seventh- and eighth-grade students brave the cavernous cafeteria daily in order to collect their lunch. After rounding the counter and passing the salad bar, they are greeted by a row of tables — often crammed with friends, strangers and acquaintances — to their right and their left. That is when the questions start to swirl.

"Who could I sit with?" "Who should I sit with?" "Do I want to be seen with them?" "Do they want to be seen with me?"

But on Friday, students jumped from table to table, playing games and participating in activities designed to make new friends and catch up with old ones. Organized by the school's student council as part of No One Eats Alone Day, a nationwide initiative to promote acceptance and inclusion at middle schools, the special lunchtime helped students grow acquaintances into friendships and curb feelings of social isolation.

"For people that aren't really outgoing, they have a harder time making friends or finding people to sit with," said Kimberly Guerrero, an eighth-grader and member of the El Camino Student Council. Her classmate, Yaneisy Sanchez, agreed.

"There might be times where you want to sit with someone, but you don't know anyone in here," she explained. "So [students] end up skipping lunch."

"A lot of what we try to do is have students be a HERO — help, encourage and respect others," said Irene Palacios, school counselor and student council adviser. "We want to encourage acceptance at our school to help students feel like they belong. The way we do that is getting to know each other by doing activities together."

Approximately 581 students attended the event, according to a count by school staff — a roughly 45-percent increase over the number of students who normally enter the cafeteria. Principal Betty Romero said many students tell her this is their favorite day of the year.

"They love the excitement and entertainment," she said. "They come to a cafeteria on a daily basis, but today it's so different — they have music and activities going, and they see their teachers here as well. It's just a great time."

More than 2,200 school across the U.S. celebrated No One Eats Alone Day on Feb. 15.

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Education Reporter

Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.