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Students order up pizza at AA Kingston Middle School in Potsdam. Photo: Julie Grant
Students order up pizza at AA Kingston Middle School in Potsdam. Photo: Julie Grant

NY21: School food gets political

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A huge number of American kids are considered overweight. Nearly one in five is classified as obese. So with a push from health experts, the medical community, and First Lady Michelle Obama, Congress approved the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010. And the USDA this fall started schools on a path toward serving healthier food.

Two things happened this fall: students started to rebel against the new food program. And the Republican candidate for the 21st Congressional District, Matt Doheny, made problems with the new guidelines a campaign issue.

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The regular meal includes more fresh vegetables and fruits, but students can still buy junk food a la carte. Photo: Julie Grant

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Julie Grant
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The new school food guidelines include more whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables. They have strict limits on sodium and calories. 

Today’s menu at AA Kingston middle school in Potsdam is pizza with whole wheat crust. Students are allowed one piece.  Or they can choose a whole wheat chicken wrap or a chicken salad sandwich. They are also supposed to take steamed green peas or a salad.

I sat down with a group of eighth graders as they were eating lunch, and asked them if they'd noticed anything different this year. They said it's smaller, and "they don’t have salads or bagels or anything like that. They don’t really have variety anymore. The kids also told me they knew a lot of other kids who'd started to bring their own lunches, and some of them had started to do the same.

These kinds of complaints have been all over the nation, and all over the North Country: the meals are smaller, and there's not a lot of choice.

Food service directors say their hands are tied. Middle school meals are required to be between 600 and 700 calories, high school meals between 750 and 850 calories. In some districts, students can only take four chicken nuggets. And they can’t add parmesan cheese on spaghetti day, because it takes the meal over the calorie limit.

In Potsdam, David Gravlin used to make homemade soup nearly every day: “We do butternut squash and apple, we do tomato, macaroni and beef, chicken noodle, we did a pumpkin soup. We probably did 30 different soups at different points.”

But when you ladle tomato, macaroni, and beef soup, there’s no guarantee you’ll get a serving of tomato, a serving of macaroni, and a serving of beef. So schools can’t serve soup anymore. 

Gravlin says he can’t offer the large variety he did last year – because he needs an exact calorie count for each meal:“It’s very difficult to keep calorie of levels for kids for an entire week if you’ve got eight, nine, 10, sometimes 15 different options…and soon we’re going to have to monitor sodium levels. It’s challenging.”

Many districts report losing money because the fresh fruits and vegetables cost more, and because fewer kids are buying lunch at school.

But they can still buy junk food in the cafeteria. Once the 8th graders at AA Kingston have finished the main meal, one buys Pop-Tarts, another potato chips. Gravlin says it makes more sense to ban this junk food, rather than to put so many restrictions on the daily hot lunch.

School lunch as campaign issue

Republican Matt Doheny of Watertown has jumped on the school lunch issue in his campaign for Congress in the 21st District. He’s running against incumbent Democrat Bill Owens of Plattsburgh, who voted for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010. Doheny says that was a mistake.

During a recent debate, Doheny said students are not being offered enough food: “The fiat's being handed down from the federal government, one size fits all out of Washington has failed.”

Incumbent Bill Owens agrees that the new rules are not working. Owens says he’s talking with USDA about it: “I am in the process of communicating to secretary Vilsack that we want him to look at that rule, pull it back, and do it over. Because it’s not working. I think we all agree with that.”

Doheny says Owens should never have voted for the law to begin with. He says decisions on cafeteria food should be made at the local level:“When I think 'how is that problem going to be eliminated?', number one is called: a parent.”

Ohio State University professor of human nutrition Dr. Robert Murray says it "may be a nice soundbite to say that it’s a parent’s responsibility. But you have to remember in this country almost 70 percent of adults are overweight.”

Murray is also a former chair of the Council of School Health for the American  Academy of Pediatrics. He says a third of those overweight adults are considered obese, and that the federal government's involvement in the school lunch program isn't anything new: it dates back to post World War 2.

Returning troops were in such terrible nutritional condition, the government started distributing surplus food. That became the school food program. He says kids today still need help with nutrition: “Kids diets today are extremely poor. It doesn’t matter if they are rich or poor, suburan, or urban, or rural.”

Murray says today’s poorly nourished children are tomorrow’s chronically ill adults. He says school cafeterias provide the most nutritional meals many children receive – by far. Even better than brown bags.

Murray admits the calorie cap isn’t working, and the USDA is considering adjustments. But he says it would be damaging to repeal the entire law:“It would dismantle the really great opportunity we have to have an impact on child nutrition and child health. And it will cost us in the long run. It would take away one of the few tools we have in making a difference in child health.”

School food service directors in the North Country say they appreciate the intent of the law, and they think the federal government has an important role in creating nutritional guidelines. But these changes were made in one year. Schools and students need time to get used to the new rules and offerings. And calorie limits shouldn’t be so strict that schools can’t serve things like homemade soup.

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