The federal government has backed off some of the stricter caloric limits placed on school meals earlier this year, a move that's drawing praise from local school officials and North Country Congressman Bill Owens.
The guidelines, set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in accordance with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, set daily and weekly limits on grains and meats. Some school districts responded by saying the guidelines left kids hungry at the end of the day. The caloric limits also became politicized in the race for New York's 21st Congressional District, with Republican congressional candidate Matt Doheny targeting Owens for voting in the legislation that led to the guidelines.
Owens and other federal lawmakers pressured USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to do away with limits on meats and grains, and earlier this month Vilsack did just that.
"USDA set guidelines for school lunches that just didn't work for many students, parents and school administrators," Owens said in a prepared statement. "It is my hope that eliminating the limit on grains and meat will give school districts the flexibility they need to provide school lunches that are both healthy and sufficient. However, I will look to local administrators for guidance to determine if additional changes are required."
Owens told the Enterprise that many school administrators in the North Country felt the guidelines were too strict. He called the USDA's response to criticism of the guidelines "reasonable."
"I think we now have to sit and see how students and parents and school administrators find this change, whether or not it has the impact that they had hoped: Where students, again, are back buying meals in school," Owens said.
Owens said dietitians think the revised rules still meet the goal of providing healthier meals for kids.
"I think from that perspective, we're moving in the right direction. It's going to take a little time to find out whether or not this does the trick completely."
Owens said he hasn't heard feedback - positive or negative - on the changes, although they've only been in place for a couple of weeks.
"The people who had communicated with us before have not reached out again," he said.
Lake Placid Central School District Superintendent Randy Richards said he received a copy of the new regulations last week and plans to review them with his cafeteria staff soon. He said he's glad the USDA listened to school administrators' concerns.
"Each district has got to decide what works for them," Richards said. "We're under the auspices of the federal government, but you've still got to operationalize and serve food that your kids will eat and ultimately like. It would have been a little more effective if they hadn't just - excuse the bad pun - force-fed us this stuff all at one time."
Richards noted that school districts in New York state have a lot on their plates as they wrangle with the new Annual Professional Performance Review and new Common Core Standards.
The Lake Placid school district has been doing its own work to improve the nutritional quality of its meals. The board of education has met with officials from Keene Central School, where meals include local products and produce from an on-campus garden. Lake Placid has also been talking to the Saranac Lake school district about sharing cafeteria services.
"I think it's been a good, healthy conversation here locally," Richards said.
Richards said he didn't hear many complaints from students, but his cafeteria workers did express concerns that some students weren't being fed enough.
"The reality is, we have some kids who, this is their meal for the day - they come from a poverty background," he said. "It's important to them. And that number has been growing. Our free and reduced lunch rate (program) has gone up. ... Not to mention how active they are. I think those lunch regs assume that a kid just goes home, sits on the bus and doesn't do anything. Half of our kids are involved in after-school sports."
Petrova Elementary School Principal Josh Dann said the USDA regulations didn't result in many issues at the elementary level in Saranac Lake. He noted that his district has been working for several years to improve the meals it serves.
"It's constantly evolving and changing to be best for our kids," Dann said. "So when this change came across, there wasn't a lot of discussion with adults or with children that I'm aware of."
Contact Chris Morris at 891-2600 ext. 25 or firstname.lastname@example.org.