Student letter about school lunches gets attention

1/9/2013 3:00 PM
By Associated Press

OSAGE CITY, Kan. (AP) — A Kansas high school student's extra-credit assignment in a government class was meant as an exercise in expressing her views on a hot topic. But it helped sway some opinions in Congress.

U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts said he received a letter from Lindsey Heward criticizing the effects of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new rules about calorie counts in school lunches. Roberts, the No. 2 Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he shared her concerns with fellow lawmakers and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

"I didn't need the extra credit. I was just expressing my opinion," said Heward, a senior at Osage City High School.

Heward wrote Roberts that students were complaining about not getting enough to eat and not liking the choices of food. She wrote that the USDA could do more to fight obesity by encouraging family meals, helping people plan a food budget or changing lifestyles instead of pinching calories.

Roberts spoke to Heward and her classmates Tuesday at Osage City, and he encouraged them to participate in government in some manner and not be afraid to speak up. He said Heward's letter was among a raft of criticism that forced the USDA to relax the guidelines.

Roberts said local school districts should be allowed the flexibility to run the lunch program without burdensome regulations. He added that 719 calories a meal wasn't enough for the average high school student to consume.

"It's ridiculous. You don't do that at the USDA cafeteria, I can assure you," Roberts told students.

The guidelines dictate that 30 percent of students' calories for the week can be consumed from fat, and that daily consumption is not to exceed 650 calories for students in kindergarten through eighth grade and 850 calories for students in grades ninth through 12th. The rules also phase in more whole grains — and regulate how much of certain food groups could be served.

But the rules were recently tweaked to allow schools to use as many grains and as much meat as they want, though the broader calorie limits are still in place. Many critics had told the USDA that grains shouldn't be limited because they were part of so many meals, and it would be difficult to always find the right size of meat.

Some people have praised the new standards, but others — including many conservative lawmakers — viewed them as government overreach.

After two town hall meetings Wednesday in Emporia and Cottonwood Falls, 1st District Rep. Tim Huelskamp said he wants the USDA to abandon the standards and leave the matter to school districts.

"It's not just me speaking as a cattle farmer in Kansas, there are other real implications. Let 100,000 school districts decide," he said. "It would just be easier if they didn't do regulations that didn't go beyond the authority of the act."

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