Congressman Owens to agriculture secretary: School lunch mandates need review
Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - 8:59 am

Congressman Bill Owens is asking the Secretary of Agriculture Thomas J. Vilsack to take a second look at federal school lunch calorie requirements in a letter issued Monday.

The letter, according to Owens, follows several conversations with parents and school officials who expressed concerns with the new rule.

“I have heard from many parents and school officials concerned about these new calorie requirements,” Owens said. “As a supporter of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, I am particularly concerned that the rules promulgated by USDA may be working at cross purpose to the intent of the law: to provide students with a healthy meal to improve their performance during school and after school activities, particularly in circumstances where a child does not have access to healthy meals at home.”

Congressman Owens voted in favor of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which reauthorizes funding for federal school meal and child nutrition programs for five years and was signed into law on Dec. 13, 2010. He said the law had support from a diverse group of leaders. The law authorized the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to issue regulations to improve school meal standards..

Under the new USDA rule, a school lunch in grades K-5 must provide between 550 and 650 calories, for grades 6-8 between 600 and 700 calories, and for grades 9-12 between 750 and 850 calories.

In his letter, Owens says the law is driving students from eating meals and may be doing more harm then good.

"Unfortunately, it has become clear that many students are simply refusing to purchase meals at school and are brining food from home, which may or may not be a more healthy choice and is reducing school lunch revenue," he said in the letter.

Owens said the unintended side effects of the law are unfortunate and need to be reevaluated.

"I urge you to review the calorie rule, and in particular, to take into account the input of school districts, parents and students. This unfortunately looks like a too frequent situation in which the federal government implements a rule that does not work on the ground," Owens wrote to Vilsack.

These calorie levels were recommended by nutritional science experts at the Institute of Medicine to ensure more healthful portion sizes.

The USDA rule also requires school meals to offer both fruits and vegetables every day of the week, increase meals rich in whole grains, offer only fat-free or low-fat milk options, and reduce saturated fats, trans fats and sodium.

Owens said the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 also increases reimbursements for school meal programs, helps schools create and expand breakfast programs, and streamlines the process for children to qualify for subsidized or free school lunches in an effort to address the twin issues of childhood hunger and obesity.