There is no question that potatoes contain a lot of needed nutrients. One potato contains 45 percent of the daily recommended intake of vitamin C and 21 percent of the recommended potassium. The problem is what most people do to the tubers. They are often filled with sour cream or butter and salt. They are mashed with cream, butter and, sometimes, cheese. They’re fried in oil and doused with salt.
This isn’t the potatoes’ fault, it’s the fault of less than creative cooks.
So as the debate over whether potatoes should be part of a healthy school lunch heats up, what is needed are some creative cooks and healthful recipes that can be scaled up to serve hundreds.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released proposed new standards for the federal school lunch and breakfast program. Included was a suggestion that starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn and peas be limited to one cup per kid per week at lunch and not be served at all at breakfast. Schools must follow the USDA rules in order to get federal money for their lunch programs.
Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Chellie Pingree immediately criticized the recommended change.
At a Senate hearing on the USDA budget in March, Sen. Collins held up a head of iceberg lettuce and a potato, pointing out that the potato contained nearly twice as much vitamin C. “So my question … is what does the department have against potatoes?” the senator quipped.
Rep. Pingree wrote the agriculture commissioner in early May asking why limits were proposed on potatoes, which are locally grown in Maine, but not bananas, which have to be imported.
She got to the crux of the matter, however, when she asked if the problem was the potatoes or their preparation.
That question is answered by the frequent appearance of mashed potatoes and tater tots on school lunch menus.
To move the debate forward, Maine’s congressional delegation could be most helpful if it presented the USDA with easy-to-prepare potato recipes for schools. Including potatoes in vegetable soups and mixed vegetables, for example, could satisfy health requirements without blacklisting the tubers. Ditto for potato pancakes that also include grated zucchini and carrots.
A school district in Idaho — another big potato-growing state — recently won a USDA award for its healthy meals and physical activity program. The school has a popular baked potato bar that includes locally grown vegetables among the toppings. Despite the award, the potato bar would be history under the proposed policy change.
Such creative, healthier alternatives is what USDA should be encouraging, not quashing.
Less back-and-forth about nutritional data and more creativity in the kitchen can lead to better school lunches without punishing potato growers.