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Political food fight over school lunches

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The race for the north country’s House of Representatives seat has turned into a food fight.

To get a first-hand taste of what he considers Democratic Rep. William L. Owens’s legislative overreach, Republican Matthew A. Doheny visited General Brown High School, Dexter, on Thursday and ate what was on the menu that day. He was left wanting more.

“My campaign manager and I had to get a snack after lunch,” Mr. Doheny said. “I was only allowed two ketchup packets. Swear to God.”

New U.S. Department of Agriculture standards set an 850-calorie limit for school lunches and also require more fruits, vegetables and whole grains as part of an effort to combat childhood obesity. Mr. Owens, of Plattsburgh, voted in 2010 to allow the USDA to write the new rules.

But critics complain that it’s a nanny-state overreach, and some schoolchildren say that it doesn’t provide them with enough calories to get through the day.

However, Mr. Owens correctly noted that Congress itself wasn’t drawing up calorie limits or requiring a certain number of celery sticks before soccer practice, for instance.

“It appears to me they did it incorrectly,” Mr. Owens said.

And the risk doesn’t stop at empty bellies. Students are bringing their lunches to school more often, which could mean less money for north country schools that already are reeling from state aid cuts and dealing with a property tax cap that limits how much they can raise taxes.

Mr. Owens said he has heard from schools and parents in both a professional and a personal capacity. He said it’s a relatively simple fix for the USDA: up the calorie limits to make the regulation work better and give local schools more flexibility with the nationwide standards.

Mr. Doheny’s objection is more broadly based.

“This is the responsibility of parents and people on the ground, parents and local folks,” Mr. Doheny said. “That is the true answer.”

The USDA previously had regulated school lunches. The new rules just set stricter calorie limits and made them healthier.

On Thursday, Mr. Doheny had a 2-ounce hamburger on a whole-wheat bun with lettuce and tomato, a cup of baked beans, a half-cup of peaches and nonfat chocolate milk.

Mr. Doheny said he understands why more and more students are bringing their own lunches to school.

“It’s not working,” he said. “Students were pretty clear.”

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