PRESQUE ISLE, Maine – Marie St. John of Caribou has three children who attend public school, and all of them usually buy school lunch at least three days a week. She said Saturday during a shopping trip in Houlton that she looks at the menu every day to see what her children are being served, but she never thought much about the role of the potato in the school lunch menu.
“I know that french fries and mashed potatoes are on the menu,” she said. “I don’t know how much or how often, but I know they are being served.”
While some people don’t pay much attention to potatoes, the federal government does. Government officials are trying to limit the amount of potatoes served in subsidized government nutrition programs like the school lunch program and the Women, Infants and Children program.
The Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, recommended late last year that the U.S. Department of Agriculture stop WIC program participants from buying potatoes with federal dollars. The institute also called for the USDA-backed school lunch program to limit the number of potatoes that are served in the school breakfast and lunch programs. The proposed rule would implement the institute’s recommendation that starchy vegetables be limited to 1 cup per week to encourage students to try new vegetables.
The WIC program makes qualifying foods available for low-income and nutritionally at-risk pregnant women and their infants and children. In late 2007, the USDA revised the program to include fresh fruits and vegetables for the first time. In the past, WIC recipients have received items such as milk, eggs, cheese, cereal and peanut butter. Under the program, clients also can buy soy beverages, organic milk, fresh fruits and vegetables, except potatoes. The white potato is the only vegetable to be left out.
Potatoes were excluded when the rules were changed in 2007 largely because the USDA determined that most people already eat enough of the vegetable, according to the USDA’s website. The rule change only applies to white potatoes. Sweet potatoes and yams are allowed.
This year, the agency will roll out a final rule on the WIC program, which last year served 9.3 million children and pregnant and breast-feeding women considered at risk for malnutrition.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a member of the Senate Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee, defended the health benefits of the white potato Thursday and urged Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to include it in both the school lunch and the WIC program.
Collins said the government should promote foods like the potato, which is low in fat, sodium and cholesterol and has a wide array of vitamins and minerals. She also said more should be done to promote healthy cooking techniques, such as baking, broiling and boiling potatoes, instead of frying them.
One medium-size baked potato has just 110 calories and provides 620 milligrams of potassium if eaten with the skin, according to figures from the Maine Potato Board. It also contains more vitamin C than one medium tomato.
“The fresh white potato is perfect for this role,” Collins said during Thursday’s hearing. “It is a perfect combination of nutrition and can be cooked in countless healthy ways. It should be included in both the WIC program and school meals programs, and it should be done in a manner that promotes their healthy cooking.”
Collins noted that the WIC program allows consumers to purchase hundreds of foods with less nutritional value than the potato, such as iceberg lettuce.
“I find it contradictory that the department simultaneously promotes the consumption of more fresh fruits and vegetables while discounting the nutritional value and undermining the success of a household staple,” she said. “WIC and the school breakfast and lunch programs are designed to assist lower-income families and children obtain more healthy sources of food. These individuals already face significant obstacles to eating a balanced and healthy diet. The potato would advance these programs’ goals of supplying participants with more healthy, inexpensive, dynamic vegetables.”
Linda Miller of Houlton has grandchildren in several school districts in Aroostook County. She said Saturday that she believes the potato should play a bigger role in the school lunch program.
“In my opinion, I see potatoes on the menu only in the form of french fries much too often,” she said. “It seems like every time I ask my grandkids what they had for school lunch, they’ll say a main course with french fries. I don’t believe I’ve heard them say they’ve had baked potatoes or boiled potatoes. That is a shame, because my children grew up on those, and they really are a healthy food.”
The Maine Potato Board, which is based in Presque Isle, has been following the issue closely. The board has long battled to quash the assumption that potatoes are unhealthy and several years ago launched a major advertising campaign to promote the nutritional benefits of the potato.
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe and Rep. Mike Michaud also have fought for the inclusion of potatoes in the federal programs.
Vilsack said those who use the WIC program are already purchasing potatoes “in great quantity.”
“So, what the WIC program is doing is that it’s essentially supplementing the potato purchases with the purchases of other vegetables that are normally not purchased or not purchased in the quantity that potatoes are purchased,” he said during the hearing. “In other words, it’s not discriminating against potatoes — it’s recognizing that potatoes are already being purchased by WIC recipients.”
Collins said Thursday she had met recently with the National Potato Council and said they are “willing to take a look at opportunities to look at potato consumption in the school breakfast and school lunch program.”
Collins said many schools are serving fried potatoes and they should look to prepare them in other ways that are lower in fat and calories.
“It’s not the potato, it’s the way in which potatoes are being produced or being provided,” said Collins.
Kevin Kelley, communications director for Collins, said Friday that a decision on the matter should come later this year.