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Owens tours AA Kingston Middle School, hears meal concerns

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POTSDAM - Healthier foods aren’t flying with students at Potsdam Central School, the district’s food service director told Rep. William L. Owens during the congressman’s visit to AA Kingston Middle School on Monday.

David J. Gravlin told Mr. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, that fewer students were eating the school-supplied meals and more were brown bagging their lunches because of the mandated change in school menus this year, which required more vegetables and fruits and smaller portion sizes.

Mr. Gravlin said in the past they have served 800 lunches a day “pretty regularly.”

“We used to serve about 800 meals a day. We’re at 600 now,” he said, noting that could potentially translate to a $100,000 loss in revenue this year.

“We understand the premise,” Superintendent Patrick H. Brady told Mr. Owens. “There is an impact. Students are bringing more lunches.”

And that, Mr. Gravlin, defeats the purpose of the healthier foods and smaller portions.

“They’re not bringing what the intention of the regulation was,” he said. “It’s too bad we have kids walking away from meals.”

The new standards, which include more whole grain, fat free or low fat milk, “right-sized portions” and limits on saturated fat are part of the United States Department of Agriculture’s change to meals served in schools.

The healthier meal requirements are a key component of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was championed by the First Lady Michelle Obama as part of her Let’s Move! Campaign and signed into law by President Obama.

Monday’s menu at AA Kingston Middle School was soft shell turkey taco with lettuce and cheese, spring mix salad, fruit and a drink.

“They have healthier choices and smaller portions,” Mr. Brady said.

One of his concerns was the portion sizes, since students who were active had a higher metabolism.

Mr. Owens wondered if any studies had been done to show the different calorie levels for the different age groups.

“The issue is kids being hungry. Kids are walking away from healthier food,” he said.

But Potsdam Central isn’t alone, according to Mr. Gravlin.

“We’re going to be hearing more and more. Plenty of complaints are coming in. A lot of other schools are feeling the same effect. Even at the New York state level they’re getting questions about it. It’s a national issue, not just a Potsdam Central issue,” he said.

While Mr. Gravlin said the intentions were good, “the way it came out with enforcement and implementation is not working.”

“It’s a challenge,” he said.

Mr. Owens said tha, while he realized “it’s going to take a while to get used to it” he would look into the requirement and its impact on schools.

“I’m going to take a look. I think it’s one of those things that maybe somebody had a good idea in Washington” that didn’t translate well in implementation, he said.

The congressman also met with sixth graders in the library during his visit and was peppered with questions of all types, such as why he wanted to be a congressman.

“I thought it was very important to have people in the political system who were not long-time politicians,” he said.

In his case, Mr. Owens said, he could “bring practical experience after 30 years in the community.”

After former Congressman John McHugh was nominated for a new position as secretary of the Army, Mr. Owens said he was approached by a group of friends who said he should run.

“The first thing I did was call John McHugh,” he said.

He is up for reelection this year, facing a challenge from Republican Matthew A. Doheny.

Asked about his view on education, Mr. Owens said, “Clearly education is one of the key things in economic development. When companies come to a community they’re concerned about what the educational system is like.”

Mr. Owens was also asked about his plans to strength the Northern New York economy.

One of the keys, he replied, was to encourage more Canadians to travel here on vacation and more Canadian companies to come to the United States.

“There are 3 million people just a little bit north of us. I like to encourage them to come down and start businesses,” he said.

Responding to a question about how the government could address St. Lawrence County’s unemployment rate, Mr. Owens said there were jobs - about 3,000 of them in his district - that were unfilled. He reiterated that they were also trying to entice Canadian companies to come to the United States.

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